When was the last time you took a deep breath, expanding your chest, contracting your diaphragm, letting fresh air seep into the deepest part of your lungs? If you haven't, you should try it now. How does it make you feel? Cooler, more relaxed, calmer?
Yoga practitioner Disha Sahay wouldn't be surprised. "Breathing right resets the body's internal temperature and helps in keeping the body cool. Practising the perfect yoga techniques to breathe right cools the body," says Sahay. The 36-year-old remembers how she would always be pulled up as a child for not breathing properly. "As a child, I would generally breathe through my mouth rather than my nose. My parents would keep ticking me off," she says. At 8, she failed to understand why she couldn't simply breathe through her mouth. "Now, as I practice yoga, I understand the difference between good breathing and bad breathing," she says.
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Not everyone pays attention to breathing techniques. How complex can simply breathing in and out get, they counter. Well, the simple answer is that--believe it or not--there is a correct way of getting oxygen inside your lungs for the proper functioning of the system. And yes, while it is true that a busy day may not allow us to continuously focus on our breath, allowing a few minutes daily for it may not be a bad idea. Practising some simple breathing exercises regularly can help control anxiety, fear, and anger—all of which impact proper breathing—and to relax and calm our minds. Studies have shown that even half an hour of mindful breathing exercise can lead to changes in the amygdala—the emotional centre of our brain which gets affected by heart rate variability. Mindful breathing means focusing on breathing to its natural rhythm and flow.
"When we do deep and slow breathing, our heart rate variability reduces; these send a signal to the amygdala to calm and relax. Rapid breathing increases heart rate variability, which sends signals to the amygdala triggering feelings like anger, anxiety, and fear. This is the reason why breathing in a correct way is very important," says Dr Pujan Parikh, Consultant-Pulmonary Medicine, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai. "When a person is calm and relaxed, breathing is slow and deep. Breathing becomes rapid and shallow during anger, anxiety, fear, and panic. In the same way, heart rate variability increases during anger, fear, and panic and reduces during a calm and relaxed state. Mindful breathing can reduce heart rate variability."
Sahay today understands that correct breathing is through the nose and involves the use of the belly. "I follow the 4-7-8 breathing technique based on pranayama breathing exercises," she says. Developed by Dr Andrew Weil, it is defined by the expert as a "natural tranquiliser for the nervous system." It involves sitting with the back straight and placing the tongue against the back of the top teeth. "You have to exhale completely through your mouth around your tongue. Close your lips and inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale completely through your mouth for a count of eight," Sahay explains the technique.
When the physical activity of the body increases, such as while running or jogging, or when one's emotional levels are raised due to anxiety or anger, the body automatically resorts to drawing in oxygen through the mouth. While this is natural, it is only when one breathes through the nostrils and uses the diaphragm above the stomach muscles does breathing really benefits the body. "When breathing through the nose, the diaphragm contracts, the belly expands, and the lungs fill with air. The technique pulls down on the lungs, creating negative pressure in the chest. This results in the air flowing into the lungs," says Parikh, adding, "Pursed-lip breathing is the best way to maximise your oxygen intake."
The proper way of breathing helps when a person is suffering from a chronic lung disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If one uses the nostrils and the diaphragm, one is assured of getting maximum oxygen into the lungs. This also aids in reducing shortness of breath. "Getting the maximum amount of oxygen into the body with minimum effort is important as oxygen generates 90 per cent of the body's energy. Only the remaining 10 per cent comes from what we intake in terms of food and liquids," says Pune-based pulmonologist Dr Pallavi G Limaye, adding, "Often bad breathing technique is a result of poor posture, stress, and other related factors. It leads to people breathing shallowly. In such cases, instead of the diaphragm contracting and making space for the lungs to expand, the upper rib cage moves more than it should. It ends up causing discomfort in the chest and back muscles and also weakens the muscles in the pelvic floor and lower back. Such breathing also disrupts the proper movement of the shoulders and spine."
Limaye says that as we age and experience more stress, we forget to practice mindful breathing. "No one takes breathing seriously because it's just there. But we have to practice the right way to breathe if we are to gain from it," she says. Studies have shown that controlled breathing can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva and alter the chemistry in the brain, affecting levels of another stress hormone, noradrenaline. "Breathing right could enhance focus and keep brains healthier for longer. The right way of breathing can help improve our sleep, digestion, and immune and respiratory functions. It can also bring down our blood pressure and anxiety," adds Limaye.
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As Sahay gets ready to practice a round of 4-7-8 breathing, the question you need to ask yourself is: are you just breathing or breathing right?