Breath is the source of prana, or life force, and among the most basic of all human functions. Breathing consists of two phases: inhalation and exhalation. When you inhale, the diaphragm—a dome-shaped muscle separating the lungs from the abdominal cavity—contracts. This allows your lungs to expand and fill with air. On the exhale, the diaphragm returns to its normal position, air is expelled, and the lungs shrink back to their original shape.
The respiratory center of the brain stem involuntarily controls your breathing without your having to think about it. Although breathing is an automatic and often mindless process, its implications for your well-being are profound.
Breath and the Nervous System
When the body is relaxed, breathing is typically long, smooth, and slow. You may notice that your jaw loosens, shoulders relax, and stomach rises and falls with each breath. This state is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and stimulates digestion. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with a rest-and-digest state of being. When your body is at rest, it directs energy toward necessary functions such as sleep and fat burning.
Inversely, rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which makes your heart beat faster and increases your blood pressure. This is the fight-or-flight center of the body. Think of a time when you have been afraid. You may have felt your chest tighten, and breath becoming shallow and rapid—centered in your chest. You may notice this type of shallow breathing with some conditions such as chronic stress or heart disease, pneumonia, emphysema, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Benefits of Deep, Nose Breathing
Just as you know that shallow breathing is associated with the body’s stress response, science inversely supports a profound link between deep breathing and positive health outcomes.
The benefits of deep breathing include:
- Enhanced blood oxygenation
- Decreased stress
- Improved pain tolerance
- Decreased reports of anger and depression
- Enhanced gut health
Breathing Practice: Pranayama
Although respiration is automatic, you can consciously alter qualities of your breathing such as the rate or depth of breath. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that means to practice breath control. One way to perform Pranayama at home is to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing—done regularly—can help to strengthen the diaphragm, improve the capacity of the lungs, and optimize the benefits of deep respiration.
Breathe Through Your Diaphragm
There are five steps for diaphragmatic breathing.
- Position yourself in a comfortable position. Most people find it easiest to start while lying on the ground, on your back. You can bend your knees and place your feed hip distance on the ground. Once you feel comfortable with the technique, you may try moving into a seated position for the breathing exercise.
- Place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest.
- Gently close your lips and breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing provides optimal oxygenation and parasympathetic nervous system response.
- Focus on the breath moving into your nose and filling up your belly. The hand over your belly will rise and fall, while the hand over your chest should hardly move.
Focusing on stilling the chest while relaxing and filling the belly helps to encourage perpendicular diaphragmatic movement. This type of contraction allows your lungs to expand deeply by contracting the diaphragm, which in turn pushes against the abdominal organs. The downward pressure of the diaphragm causes the stomach to rise, providing healthy movement to the abdominal organs and pelvic floor.
- Practice. Pranayama can, and should, be practiced daily. Try incorporating five to ten minutes into your daily routine.
Pranayama on the Go
Feeling stressed while on the go? Maybe your boss has made you upset, or you are running late for an appointment and caught at a stop light. You can use your breath to shift your state of being, no matter where you are or who you are around. Try these small cues to provide yourself with a little tune-up and optimized respiration, no matter the audience:
- Gently close your lips and breathe through your nose
- Trace the movement of your inhale down, past your chest, into your belly
- Relax your jaw. Let your tongue fall away from the roof of your mouth. Unclench any clenched teeth.
- Practice counting—count to five on the inhale and five again on the exhale. Repeat for as long as you need until you feel centered—like you are no longer ready to fight or flee.
Breath is the most simple and rich source of prana that you use to fuel all other body functions. It is important that you do not take for granted this most basic process. Instead, find time in the day to practice awareness around your breathing. Whether you have time for a full Pranayama practice, or simply find yourself breathing more through your nose and less through your mouth, you will be doing good for both your body and your mind.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Discover how to use one of the simplest, most effective tools you have—your breath—to feel less stressed and more energetic with Breathwork, our self-paced online course. Learn More.