The right breathing techniques can make a big difference (Photo: Getty Images)
For something so basic, we sure do get it wrong sometimes. “Breathing is the most important thing we do, but the thing we pay the least amount of attention to,” says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, author of Breathe ($11; amazon.com). “Our breathing has gotten so dysfunctional that we think it’s normal,” she says. Turns out, you can use a better breath to fight anxiety, sleep better, and exercise harder. Here, 20 situations where adjusting your breathing can make a huge difference.
When you’re stressed
You’re in the middle of a work project, and it’s not going well. You won’t even notice it, but your natural reaction is to take quick and shallow breaths, which actually increases your body’s stress response. “The fastest way to stop anxiety is to slow your breathing down to about five breaths per minute,” says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, co-author of The Healing Power of Breath ($14; amazon.com) and assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College. Breathe gently and naturally without overfilling your lungs and without forcing the air out, she advises.
When you’re in pain
Whether you’ve just stubbed your toe, you’re nursing a splitting headache, or you have a painful chronic condition, the way you breathe may bring relief. In one small study published in Pain Medicine, volunteers who used a deep, slow breathing technique had a higher pain threshold when their skin was exposed to a very hot or very cold stimulus. Another study concluded deep breathing was ineffective for managing pain in ER patients, but that the majority of those who’d received instruction on deep breathing techniques felt it was useful.
“Performance anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and problems reaching orgasm can make people anxious about sex,” says Ian Kerner, sex therapist and author of She Comes First ($12; amazon.com). He recommends controlled mindful breathing, which can make you more aware of the sensations in your body and track your sexual response. To do it, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can even count one-two in your head to help you relax. Need to take it up a notch? “I encourage patients to imagine their breath going into their genitals,” he says. Visualizing it this way “can make you feel as if your genitals are becoming alive and activated, which can help with orgasm.”
For those times that you need to hunker down and get into the zone, Dr. Gerbarg recommends taking a few short, forceful breaths. “Breathe in sharply and breathe out forcefully while shouting ‘ha’,” she says. (Maybe close your office door while you do this one.) Aim for 20 breaths per minute, but do it for no more than 3 to 5 minutes, she advises. One warning: if you have high blood pressure, avoid this type of breathing.
Related: 12 Mental Tricks That Fight Pain
To practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a big buzzword these days; benefits of this meditation-like practice include helping you control your emotions, bettering your relationships, and reducing anxiety and depression. Mindfulness means slowing down and noticing the moment you’re in, whether that be the warm water over your hands while you do the dishes or how gorgeous the morning sunrise is. Dr. Gerbarg suggests focusing your awareness on your breath, paying attention to how it moves in and out. This method will slow down breathing and enhance your sense of calm.
On a run
“Breathe through your nose and mouth,” says Janet Hamilton, CSCS, exercise physiologist at Running Strong Professional Coaching. You want to relax your jaw so air can move easily through both. (If you use just your nose, for example, you won’t be able to take in the same volume of air at the same rate. “It’s like using a small garden hose versus a large fire hose,” says Hamilton.) This will deliver the oxygen to muscles needed to work properly and perform. Without it, you won’t go as far or fast. And don’t worry about timing your breathing to your footfall pattern, says Hamilton. You’ll naturally fall into a pattern that works for you. “Just relax and do what feels natural,” she adds.
On a run…in winter
This is one instance when breathing through just your nose can be an advantage. It may feel more difficult or restricting at first, but it will warm the air before it reaches the lungs, bettering oxygen consumption, says Chip Huss, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Master Instructor. If that’s too hard to do, you can wear a scarf covering your face and breathe through your mouth and nose as normal. Breathing in cold air can cause airways to constrict, so warming the air can help keep airways relaxed, and the oxygen level in your blood stream up, which helps muscles get what they need to perform.
At spin class
Learn to breathe through your nose, then your mouth, advises Huss. But more important than how you breathe is getting into an optimal position to do so. Make sure you hinge at the hip (rather than rounding your back) when leaning over to reach the handlebars, which will give your lungs the space they need to fill with air. Obviously, you don’t need those hills to be any harder than they already are.
While lifting weights
For best muscle power, inhale during the eccentric portion of the lift and exhale during the concentric portion, advises Huss. Translation: let’s say you’re doing a bicep curl. Exhale as you flex your elbow and curl up and inhale when lowering the weight back down.
Related: 15 Running Tips You Need to Know
You know those people killing it in the weight room who are—ahem—noisy breathers? They’ve got the right idea, especially during HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts. Huss counsels clients in the martial arts breathing technique called the “Kiai.” “It’s a method of generating energy through forceful breathing with your diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles.” When you do a Kiai breath, inhale, and then on the exhale make a “shushhhh” sound while letting air out of your teeth and drawing in your navel. To put it into action, take the burpee-pushup. Do the Kiai breath at the very bottom of the pushup and explode out into the jump. On a squat, Kiai at the bottom of the squat while driving your heels into the ground.
If you’re pregnant
The hee-hee-hoo-hoo way of breathing you’ve seen on TV shows might completely backfire, worsening labor, says Vranich. “I have my client actors huff and puff this way when they need to feel stressed for a role,” she says. It puts your body into fight or flight mode. Not exactly what you were going for. During pregnancy and labor, practice cat and cow. On your hands and knees, exhale and round your back up (cat). On the inhale, form an arch at the bottom of your back with your tailbone tipped out (cow). Long inhales and exhales are key. “This form of breathing keeps your and your baby’s blood pressure low.”
If you have trouble letting thoughts go during meditation, practice breath awareness, says Dr. Gerbarg. Start with 5 to 10 minutes of “coherent breathing” (or 5 breaths per minute); the slow breath will make it easier to get into a state of meditation.
On a hike
One of the newest health spa trends? Forest bathing. The Japanese practice (called Shinrin-yoku) involves visiting a forest. Breathing in certain organic compounds from trees has been shown to increase immune function and reduce stress. To make the most of it, Dr. Gerbarg suggests coordinating each breath with a certain number of steps, which will relax your breath for an even bigger stress-busting boost. Five breaths per minute is perfect for a leisurely forest walk, she says.
At barre class
In class, you’ll do lots of mini pulses while in a squat or lunge, for example. It’s so important not to hold your breath—even if that’s exactly what you want to do, says Lina Belkin, Chief Training Officer at The Barre Code. For example, take lunge pulses. When you pulse down-down-down, you want to exhale-exhale-exhale. (The inhale will naturally come along). On isometric holds, another staple of barre classes (where you are holding one position until you shake), you may again hold your breath because you don’t know if you can keep going, says Belkin. Instead, during the hold you want to inhale deeply, filling up your belly and then exhale by pulling your belly up and in.
You’ll hear the instructor tell you when to inhale and exhale. And it can take practice to follow along. “Don’t get hung up on the mental racket of 'I can’t do this breath thing,’” says Liza Pitsirilos, Co-Founder of WHEALTH, LLC and Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa Mind Body Programming Leader and yoga Instructor. Rather than trying to time your breaths, think about breathing into specific areas of your body. “This is a tool for healing,” she says. For example, if you are having relationship problems, it may help to breathe through your heart. Or if you’re having a lot of anxiety and GI problems, you might want to imagine breathing through your stomach.
In a vinyasa flow yoga class
Vinyasa—or flow yoga—is different from other forms of yoga because you are doing quicker movements that “flow” together. Because the poses go so fast, “most people go back to their habitual short shallow breathing because they are in struggle mode,” says Pitsirilos. So slow your breath down and pace your movements according to your breath. (One movement per breath.) Don’t worry about going the same pace as the class—what matters more is that you make the most out of your practice.
Some people hold their breath just to bust out an extra rep, says Scott Danberg, Director of Fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. “This unsafe breathing practice will lead to a rise in pressure in the chest, which can cause dizziness,” he says. To do it right, inhale whenever the movement “feels” easier and exhale when the movement “feels” harder, he advises. You can use the technique for ab exercises and stretching, too, he says.
Related: The Beginner’s Guide to Meditation
While falling asleep
For patients who have trouble drifting off, Michael Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist in private practice in Scottsdale, Ariz., recommends deep breathing before falling asleep. “This will slow your heart rate down considerably and can be an entryway to sleep onset,” he says. He recommends diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe through your nose for about 2 seconds, with your belly moving outward more than your chest. As you breathe out, gently press your belly, which will push up on your diaphragm and help you get air out. Repeat.
If you have COPD
Having COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) makes it difficult to breathe. The COPD Foundation recommends two techniques to get you the air you need without having to work so hard. The first is diaphragmatic breathing, which we already went over. The other is pursed-lips breathing: Breathe in through your nose for about 2 seconds. Pucker your lips, and breathe out very slowly—two to three times longer than you spent breathing in. Repeat.
If you have asthma
More than 25 million people (including 7 million children) in the United States have asthma. Asthma can’t be cured, and having it requires careful management using long-term control and short-acting medications, avoiding triggers, and regularly checking in with a doctor. Breathing exercises under the guidance of a trained therapist may also help. In a 2014 review of studies published in the journal Breathe, researchers concluded that learning fairly simple breathing exercises can improve a patient’s experience with the disease and reduce their need for rescue meds. Talk to your doctor about trying these techniques yourself.
by Jessica Migala
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