What's the first thing someone tells you to do when you're on the verge of a meltdown?
That's right: "Take a deep breath."
In crisis, the last thing you want to do is take a deep breath. How, exactly, is that deep breath going to turn things around? Turns out, there's anatomical truth to this age-old advice that you shouldn't take for granted.
Can pranayama, your life force, actually influence your happiness? To find out, let's start with a basic anatomy refresher.
What A Deep Breath Looks Like
Whether it's called belly breathing, abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, the concept is simple. Taking a deep breath engages the diaphragm, the muscle which divides your chest from abdomen. On an inhale, the diaphragm moves down to allow the lungs to expand with oxygen. On the exhale, the diaphragm presses up against the lungs to dispel carbon dioxide.
Most of us (when not on the yoga mat) slip back into our habit of breathing with the upper half of our lungs. Our intercostal muscles get a workout, but our belly barely moves. Inside the chest, this means the lower lobes of our lungs don't get a full helping of fresh oxygen.
According to Harvard Medical School, many small blood vessels instrumental in carrying oxygen to cells reside in the lowest portion of the lungs. When these areas are deprived of air, you can feel short of breath and anxious — which is the opposite of feeling happy.
What Deep Breaths Do To the Body
Every minute, our lungs can expand and contract up to 20 times, but if those 20 times are spent breathing into half of our lung capacity, we just might be depriving ourselves of much more than fresh oxygen.
Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which guides the body from stress to relaxation. When we're relaxed, our heart rates and blood pressure lower, we sweat less and digestion improves.
By training yourself to breathe slowly and deeply in yoga class, during meditation and in your everyday life, you're priming your body to relax. You're turning off the "fight-or-flight" response that occurs when stressed, and giving yourself more opportunities to slow down, be present and think clearly.
Try This Belly Breathing Exercise
To get in the habit of deep breathing, try the following:
- Choose to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your abdomen. Inhale into your abdomen, ballooning the breath into that space and feeling your hand lift. Exhale and empty completely from this space. Do this two more times, softening the navel toward your spine on the exhales.
- Now inhale and only lift the hand on your heart, expanding the ribs up and out. Exhale and empty completely from this space. Take two more breaths here.
- Combine the two: Inhale from the abdomen, then the heart; exhale from the heart, then the abdomen. Stay for six cycles of deep breath.
The next time you practice this simple deep breathing exercise, know that you're actually taking control of a whole avalanche of physiological effects that can lead to your happiness. It all begins one breath at a time.