RODALE NEWS, LENOX, MA—If we look at how a child develops, we can see exactly how breathing can become inhibited. One of the biggest challenges for a young child is learning to regulate his or her emotions. How do you stop crying when your mother leaves you in your own bed at night? How do you handle the pain of falling as you struggle to walk? Or the recurring frustration of being told “no” dozens of times a day? Such are the challenges of childhood, and we all had to find ways to handle them.
One of the ways you learned to manage your emotions was by tensing the muscles in the core of your body. You found you could suppress that flood of feeling welling up in the center of your body by tightening your chest and belly muscles. Tightening muscles in the core of your body restricts the flow of energy and emotion, and protects you from feeling uncomfortable emotions. Muscular constriction inhibits your experience of internal space and keeps strong feelings under wraps. It also restricts your breathing.
Over many years, constricted breathing becomes habitual. Tight muscles around the rib cage and abdomen prevent the diaphragm from moving freely. Breathing with tight muscles tends to be shallow and inefficient. Inefficient breathing requires a faster rate of breathing to meet the body’s oxygen needs. With rapid breathing, heart rate increases, neck and shoulder muscles also become tense, and the body’s stress response is activated. As a result, people who engage in constricted breathing are more prone to experience anxiety and stress-related conditions such as hypertension, headaches, and depression. Over time, constricted breathing also drains energy, resulting in feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
The good news is that with a little training, you can learn simple ways of breathing that can transform your health and well-being for a lifetime. Breathing freely can increase energy, decrease anxiety, and enhance mood very quickly. Shifting from constricted breathing to relaxed, natural breathing turns off the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. This balances the autonomic nervous system, producing a feeling of relaxed energy, mental clarity, and a physiological state that promotes health and vitality.
Rather than inhibit your experience of internal space in your chest and abdomen, you can learn to inhabit it. In doing so you will allow your emotions and energy to flow freely. Unrestricted breathing literally opens up the space within you and inspires you with the energy of life.
Here are three different types of breathing exercises, each of which yields a specific result. You can experiment with each of them, and find the methods that most benefit you.
#1: Belly Breathing. Belly breathing involves the relaxation and contraction of the abdominal muscles. As you inhale, your abdominal muscles relax. Your diaphragm lowers and your lungs expand into the space created by the lowering of your diaphragm. Your abdominal muscles contract as you exhale. Your diaphragm rises, causing the space in your chest to shrink and your lungs to deflate. To learn how to engage in diaphragmatic or belly breathing, see Why You Should Breathe Like a Baby.