Friday, April 30, 2010

Breathing with your belly

Healthy breathing involves opening and expanding both your belly and your chest. As a culture, we tend to value big chests and small bellies. As a result, we learn early how to “suck it in” and not let our belly (or our feelings) show. (Believe it or not, there are cultures where a relaxed, expanded belly is considered attractive!) The problem is, we don’t allow ourselves to breathe with our bellies. This habit just limits the amount of life-enhancing oxygen we receive and accentuates the stress pattern of tightening our abdominal muscles and diaphragm (the big internal muscle that covers the bottom of the rib cage) and holding our breath.
To counteract this pattern and help you relax, try the following exercise, drawn from hatha yoga:
  1. Notice how you’re breathing right now. Which parts of your body expand when you breathe, and which parts do not? How deeply and quickly (or slowly) are you breathing? Where does your breathing feel tight or constricted? How do your belly muscles and diaphragm feel?
  2. Make a conscious effort to expand your belly when you breathe. I use the word “effort” advisedly because your abdominal muscles and diaphragm may be quite tight at first.
  3. Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly. Notice your body’s resistance to changing your habitual breathing patterns.
  4. Continue breathing in this way for five minutes and then breathe naturally. Do you notice any differences? Do your abdominal muscles feel more relaxed? Are you breathing more deeply than before? Do you feel more energized or calm?
Practice this exercise regularly — at least once a day. It can be especially useful when you’re stressed out or anxious and your belly starts to tighten and your breathing constricts. Just shift to belly breathing and notice what happens.

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