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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.
When the body is in a state of relaxation, 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).
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:
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.
There are five steps for diaphragmatic breathing.
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.
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:
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 and do a few breathing exercises. 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 program. Learn More.