Re-Learning to Breathe: An Easy Step Towards Relaxation

One of the simplest methods of relaxation comes back to that fundamental function we are all performing every minute of every day: breathing. It’s something we are born knowing how to do. With our first inhalation of cold air as we emerge from the warmth and safety of our mother, we begin breathing to survive. If you observe a baby breathe, you will notice that they engage their entire abdomen. They breathe in slowly and deeply, their bellies rising and falling rhythmically with each breath. However, as we grow up, the stressors of life begin to affect us, and our breath becomes shallower and more constricted. We no longer allow air to descent deep into our abdomen, but instead only circulate air in and out of our chest. This shallow method of breathing does not engage your diaphragm (the muscle that moves to allow for deep inspiration), causing it to eventually become tense, your abdominal muscles to become constricted, and for you to lose the ability to breathe deeply and naturally.

Re-learning how to breath abdominally is a simple way to reduce stress and enhance brain function. A study published within the Journal of Neuroscience last year found that the rhythm and method of one’s breathing generates electrical activity within the brain that improves emotional judgments and memory recall.* This deep abdominal breathing is made possible by descending the diaphragm (a strong, dome-shaped muscle that lies between the abdomen and chest.) When you breathe into your diaphragm, it descends away from your chest, causing your abdominal muscles to relax and rise. This provides your Lungs with more space in which to expand, thus allowing more air to be drawn in. By descending the diaphragm, one stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, slows the cardiovascular system, relaxes muscles, and allows more oxygen to flow through one’s body.

A simple, step-by-step guide for practicing abdominal breathing

  1. Lie down on your back in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.

  2. Place your right hand just above your belly button and your left hand on your chest.

  3. Close your eyes and slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

  4. Imagine your breath descending past your chest and into your belly. You should feel no movement below your left hand, and your right hand should gently rise and fall.

  5. If you notice more movement happening in your chest than your abdomen, don’t get discouraged, re-learning how to breathe deeply can feel awkward at first. But with practice, you will be able to perform it with ease during moments of stress, even while sitting up or standing.

  6. When you become used to breathing into your abdomen, bring your attention to the flow of your breath. Observe it. Is it smooth? Irregular? Focus on smoothing it out and making it flow gently in and out.

  7. Notice how you feel after practicing abdominal breathing. Do you feel calmer? More relaxed?

  8. You may now begin incorporating this practice into your daily life.

*References: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016

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