Breathing – it seems so simple, doesn’t it? Yet, when we engage in different ways of breathing, it can cause very different results! It may either cause stress or relaxation. At its core, breath is a bio-energetic feedback loop – breath is life. We must inhale and exhale, bringing in oxygen-rich energy and expelling toxins.

So, how can one learn how to breathe to improve one’s health? Let’s explore some different types of breathing then do a simple exercise.

First off, there are five styles of breathing: clavicle, chest, mouth, nasal, and abdominal. The first three actually cause anxiety in that we do not get enough oxygen intake, nor do they activate relaxation. Certainly during cardiovascular exercise, we are going to breathe in through the mouth. Chest breathing leads to more stress and tension, which are linked to many diseases. Conversely, nasal and abdominal breathing are stress reducing. It is possible to retrain oneself to breathe this way to stay in the relaxation mode.

Stress and the Breath

Stress causes constriction in nerves and muscles. If chronic, it can be the culprit in many medical conditions. Stress immediately affects our breathing and so from a bio-energetic standpoint our whole being is affected.

Breathing Technique #1: Pranayama Breathing

Inhalation is known as “Prana” in Sanskrit. It means “Life Force.” Many forms of yoga and martial arts teach breath control as part of mastering and centering the mind and body for more efficient use of this “Life Force,” yielding greater resilience. The practice of controlling one’s breathing through counting or timed inhalations and exhalations is called “Pranayama.”

Breathing Technique #2: Yoga Breathing

All babies breathe from their little bellies. We all breathed this way once. Over time, exposure to life’s stresses may contribute to shallow breathing.

Abdominal (originating in the lower belly) and nasal breathing (In through the nose and out through the mouth) are two forms of breathing that activate the Vagus nerve, causing the “Relaxation Response,” one of the best antidotes to the Stress Response.

These forms of breathing stimulate the Vagus nerve and activate the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which induces relaxation and decreases inflammation.

The Vagus nerve is activated and toned through deep abdominal breathing that engages the diaphragm. Low Vagal Tone is implicated in various disease conditions, such as depression, loneliness, heart attack, and stroke, among others.

Some of the positive “side effects” of deep breathing are improved memory, decreased depression, lower blood pressure, slowed heart rate, improved immunity, the activation of endorphins, a sense of wellbeing and overall ease.

Time to Take a Breather!

To start, simply try to breathe more slowly, more deeply (from the lower belly) and more rhythmically (like waves on the ocean) throughout your day.

Try to exhale twice as long as you inhale (try inhaling for 3-4 counts and exhaling for 6-8 counts). If you practice this three times a day for a week or two, it can become more automatic and preventive of stress, but also serve as a tool when stress or anxiety present themselves.

Deep breathing is nature’s tranquilizer, programmed into us since our early beginnings. It is one way to get back to center—the very heart of our being. We can all benefit by breathing a little bit easier and by breathing EASE into our life on purpose and with intention.

Evy Smith, MA LCMHC, CTTS-M, is an EFAP Counselor & Tobacco Treatment Specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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