On Breathing

This post and the next are the core of the fear abatement section of the dangerous Quakers class. I learned this from J. Eric Gentry of Sarasota Florida.

Belly Breathing

I know it doesn’t make sense that you should need lessons on how to do something that you did automatically the first minute you entered this world, but the fact remains – most of us don’t breathe right.

After you quit smoking, learn moderation in everything else, and give yourself eight hours to sleep every night, the most important thing you can do for your health is learn to breathe. (ok – maybe you can start breathing WHILE you learn some of those other things)

The kind of breathing that I am talking about is called deep-belly breathing. It is not rocket science and it is not anything new. If you would like to find a coach to work on this I would suggest any good Yoga, Tai Chi or Vocal teacher. But you don’t need a spendy guru for this. Here are the basics.

What we are talking about here is misnamed, of course. You can’t breathe into your belly. You breathe into your lungs. What we are talking about is which muscle set you use to assist your lungs to expand - they aren't actually very strong on their own. What you want to do is use your belly and pelvic floor muscles to pull your diaphragm down to make room in the chest cavity.

The first step is to assess your breathing. Sit in a nice straight chair with your spine in a nice, natural, upright position – not unnaturally stretched, but not slouching. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your lower abdomen. Take a few deep breaths. If you are breathing right your lower belly will move out when you breath in, and your chest will not move much. If your shoulders rise at all, this is bad. See if you can move only your belly and have it expand as if the air was literally filling your gut not your lungs. If this is easy for you, and you breathe this way all the time, kudos! Skip to the last few paragraphs of this to add the info on pelvic floor muscles. If you have difficulty breathing this way I have a few tips for you.

Sitting on your chair – put your hands under your butt and feel your “sit bones” got them? Now on the front of your belly feel for your hipbones.

Close your eyes and feel these four points as a rectangle.
You have three sets of muscles that affect this area.
The abdominal muscles – those guys that hurt when you do sit-ups (do more sit-ups); the psoas muscles that run down your back and connect your hips to your thighs (you usually only feel these guys when you damage them) and the pelvic floor muscles (between your legs on both men and women).

Using these three sets of muscles expand that abdominal rectangle while taking in a deep breath. For some of you this is going to take practice. If you are doing it right your belly will expand low down (not at your waistband unless you wear your jeans very low like my daughters), and you will feel your pelvic floor expand –
more expansion at the crotch than at the waistband.

This explanation does not work for some people.

Lots of folks have spent decades ignoring this region of their body.

If that totally failed try this – a little bit more of visualization. Imagine there is a softball sitting right down at the bottom of your torso. Breathe and try and expand that softball to volleyball size. If you are a tiny person start with a baseball.

The next step is to learn to lengthen your breaths. Count in and out as you breathe – nice and slow. Try and work up to bigger numbers on both the in and the out take.

Practice for the next few days/weeks/months/years on belly breathing until it is natural,

When it takes effort to try and breath the old way you have mastered it.

I think Thich Nhat Hahn called this "deep breathing" and its central to his practice of Buddhism. It's believed that it is central to creating peace in the world, along with the practice of deep listening. I try to do it in times of stress and before going to sleep at night. I think Westerners like myself might also benefit from the flow of oxygen to the brain it produces as well ;-).
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