woman breathing
Photo: Dan Saelinger
It's among the most important physical functions our bodies perform. We do it about 20,000 times a day. And still, somehow, most of us get it wrong. "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be to learn to breathe correctly," says Andrew Weil, MD, a well-known pioneer in the field of integrative medicine.

Chinese and yogic traditions have long extolled the importance of chi or prana—the life forces associated with breath—and science is finally catching up. "Medicine is just recognizing the importance of energy to health," says Richard P. Brown, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. "And our most critical source of energy is oxygen."

It turns out that getting more oxygen—by simply changing the way we breathe—can facilitate healing from a startling number of serious conditions, including chronic pain, atrial fibrillation, asthma, digestive issues, depression, and a wide range of stress-related illnesses. The secret is to return to a more natural pattern of respiration: Newborns come into the world breathing deeply, but as we age, stress can alter that pattern, and many of us start to breathe more shallowly. By adulthood, on average, we're taking 15 to 20 breaths per minute—three to four times faster than is optimal.

That's where the trouble can start. "Rapid, shallow breathing sends a message to our adrenal glands that we're in fight-or-flight mode, and they begin pumping out stress hormones like cortisol," explains Brenda Stockdale, director of mind-body medicine at the RC Cancer Centers in Atlanta. And when the body is stressed, it's weakened. Our immune cells normally function like "little Pac-Men," Stockdale explains, "patrolling for and destroying bacteria and diseased cells before they can multiply. But when cortisol levels are elevated, those immune cells slow down drastically, allowing pathogens and diseased cells to slip by."

Fortunately, there are simple methods to reverse our faulty inhale-exhale habits. To get started, try these three exercises:

Diaphragmatic Breathing


What it is: Breathing that involves expanding the belly, which gives the lungs room to take in more oxygen.
How it can help: Improves circulation; eases stress-related and anxiety disorders; speeds recovery from chemotherapy.
How to start:
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place one hand just below your rib cage and the other on your upper chest.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach pushes against your lower hand.
3. As you exhale through pursed lips, tighten your abs and let them fall inward. (Throughout inhalation and exhalation, the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.) Do this exercise three times a day for five to ten minutes, then gradually increase that amount. With enough practice, you should begin to breathe this way automatically.

Alternate-Nostril Breathing


What it is: A yogic technique designed to promote relaxation.
How it can help: Reduces blood pressure; may have an anti-obesity effect; boosts cognitive function on spatial tasks.
How to start:
1. With your right thumb, close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril.
2. Now close your left nostril with your pinky and ring fingers, release your thumb, and exhale slowly through your right nostril.
3. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it; open the left nostril, and exhale slowly through the left. That's one round. Start with three rounds, and add a round each week until you are up to five. Then practice whenever you're feeling stressed out.

The Bellows Breath


What it is: An exercise aimed at increasing alertness.
How it can help: Provides a boost in energy comparable to the high you feel after a workout.
How to start:
1. With your mouth closed, inhale and exhale quickly and evenly through your nose. Aim for three in-out cycles per second, but stop after 15 seconds on your first attempt.
2. Keep practicing, increasing your time by five seconds, until you reach a minute. When you feel your energy dipping, try this technique for 60 seconds.

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