The Profound Power of Breathing
Deep, controlled breathing — an easy technique you can do anytime — can vastly improve your health and well-being
Take a few normal breaths. Feel your chest rise and fall? If so, you’re doing it wrong, according to breathing therapists and scientists. Make a quick fix there, and maybe introduce a few breathing exercises to your day, and you’ll be able to reduce stress, improve your focus, and even lower your blood pressure, among other health benefits.
Breathing is at the core of ancient (and currently trendy) mindfulness practices, from yoga and tai chi to meditation. However, studies suggest that breathing exercises alone, derived from those ancient yoga practices, can be good for the body and mind. Scientists don’t know which aspects of breathing are most beneficial to your health: the physical act of inhaling deeply, the effect of abundant oxygen and thorough flushing of carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the body’s energy creation), or the relaxation that ensues. “It’s probably some mix,” says Sara Lazar, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who studies the neuroscience of yoga and meditation. “But there has not been a definitive study to describe the relative contribution of each component.”
Wherever the benefits arise from, deep, controlled breathing, which involves filling the lungs to the max and goes by various names like belly or diaphragmatic breathing, has been linked to improved cognitive performance and lower stress levels. Deep breathing for as little as 10 minutes a day may lower blood pressure. Slow, controlled breathing — a separate technique that ignores the inhale and focuses on breathing out slowly — can quickly lower the heart rate, helping to combat a panic attack or reduce acute anxiety.
“Anxious patients are often desperate for the immediate relief they expect to find in a pill, yet yoga breathing practices can alleviate anxiety within minutes,” says Richard Brown, associate clinical professor in psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of several books on the topic. “Once people experience this rapid physical relaxation and mental calming, they are more motivated to work with their breath rather than become more dependent on medication.”