Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mindfully Minding The Breath

I have yet to introduce someone to the concept of Mindful breathing without getting a wary look or mocking glance. After all, we’re alive so we’re doing something right with our breathing. Aren’t we? Or are we?
It would seem that breathing is an automatic body function and, unless we are in some form of acute respiratory distress, we shouldn’t have to think or worry about our breathing.
Yet, today there are thousands of experts making a living by teaching students or patients “how to breathe” properly.
So, how did we get to be in our mid and later years of life without realizing that we are ignorant about healthy breathing?

For starters, we were healthier breathers when were babies and infants. If you watch a newborn or young child breath, you will notice their little bellies rise and fall with each gentle breath. Yet, as we age, we tend to succumb to poor body habits of movement and posture. We also develop unhealthy response patterns to stress and anxiety, which results in a change in breathing habits. Agitated emotional states cause agitated breathing resulting in shorter, more shallow breaths which diminishes the free flow of air in and out of the lungs, upsetting a healthy exchange of bodily gases, causing an unbalanced state of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body.

Therefore the goal of bringing mindful awareness to our breathing is to teach us to relearn healthy breathing habits. Should be easy, right? Well, not so fast.
Part of what makes the respiratory system unique in the body is that it is one of the few systems that can be controlled by both the somatic (voluntary) and autonomic (involuntary) nervous systems, meaning it can be controlled consciously or unconsciously. Read more about the nervous system here.



So, stop reading (just for a few moments, please) and place one hand on your belly and one on your chest). Notice which hand tends to rise and fall first. Try this sitting up and lying down. Notice if there is a difference. If you are past the age of puberty and noticed that the hand in the belly is the one rising first, you are one of the lucky ones. Most adults will readily admit that their chest rises first. This is even more true when we are upset, anxious, worried, etc..

The goal of mindful breathing is to teach us how to reprogram our breathing patterns so that the we are engaging our diaphragm and initiating a slower, deeper, healthier breathing process.


What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

When the diaphragm contracts, it pushes down, pulling the bottom of the lungs downward and allowing the lungs to expand and the ribs to push outward. This creates a vacuum in the lungs, allowing fresh oxygenated air to rush in. When the diaphragm relaxes, the ribs come inward and the top of the diaphragm once again rises and flattens allowing the lungs to empty and push the air and carbon dioxide out. This creates a healthier exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide calming the body and the mind.


To practice this type of breathing, once again sit or lay down. Correct posture is a critical part of the breathing process and for this exercise so if you are sitting, be sure you are sitting tall on your sit bones with your ears over your shoulders and shoulders over your hips. If you choose to lay down, be sure you are fairly straight so the spine is properly aligned.
Place your hands on your mid front rib section, with fingertips lightly touching. (Thumb will be just below the chest and pinky finger at or slightly above the belly button.) Try to bring all of your awareness to encouraging the ribs to slight expand so that the fingertips will slightly part on the inhale and come back together on the exhale.
This is not as easy at it sounds and will require your complete mindful awareness. Trying practicing for just a few minutes everyday when you are relatively calm and relaxed. Then, with practice, it will become easier to call on this mindful coping breath when you find yourself in a stressful or situation or succumbing to feelings of panic.

Check back soon as I will be posting a video to help with various mindful breathing exercises.

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