Feature: Just Breathe - Alleviating Stress is Just One Breath Away
Having trouble getting your behind off the couch for a workout or a romp with your kids because you just don't have enough energy? Find yourself sitting hunched up and contorted at your computer terminal, suffering from eye strain, neck pain, and creaking at every joint? Can't quite find the calm in the storm of life?

Maybe you're forgetting to breathe.

"Most of us learned the basics of how the respiratory system works in junior-high biology class," offers Susan Davis, in American Health for Women magazine. "We take in oxygen when we inhale and release carbon dioxide when we exhale. Yet despite the seeming simplicity of breathing, by the time we reach adulthood, most of us develop pretty bad breathing habits."

Bombarded by stress like we are, a simple task like breathing doesn't stand much of a chance, yet it's critical to well-being. Typically, says Dr. Eric Pepper, a psycho-physiologist and researcher in self-healing and breath-work, we've knotted ourselves up to the point that the upper chest, specifically the muscles in our necks and upper backs, take over the chore of breathing.

Chest breathers, researchers contend, breathe just enough to take in essential air, but not enough to draw that air deeply into the lungs, which can fuel many of our ills, including headache, heart disease and even hot flashes.

In the endless quest for self-improvement and a better life, many overlook a powerful tool that can reduce stress, sustain health, increase performance, calm emotions and bolster creativity. It requires no fancy gadgets or hardware and only minimal training, and takes only a few minutes a day.

That tool is conscious, or mindful, breathing. Its secrets have been around for centuries. With the help of modern science, it's gaining ground as an essential tool for life.

Breathing is the dynamic conversion of air to life-sustaining energy. Every cell and system needs a fresh supply to function properly, and the body uses it to cast off waste-filled carbon dioxide.

When stressed, though, our shallow chest breathing stimulates our ancestral fight-or-flight and freeze responses, making the body react as if it's in a state of emergency. This produces a build-up of stress-related chemicals like adrenaline, lactic acid and cortisol, which when combined with shallow, rapid breathing, researchers have found, can make us feel chronically anxious, fatigued or disoriented.

They are also a contributing factor in stress-related disorders such as such as heart disease and high blood pressure - which are at epidemic levels - as well as PMS, menstrual cramps, headaches, migraines, insomnia, asthma, back pain and allergies.

Proper breathing is done from the diaphragm, that muscle just below the lungs. When you breathe deeply, your diaphragm drops down, and your belly swells outward, expanding your ribs and the muscles in the lower back, and opening up more space. That gets more oxygen to the body, slows down your heart and can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where feelings of relaxation and calm originate.

"What's in common with all the people I see?" asks Dr. Jeffrey A. Migdow, a holistic medical doctor and director of yoga training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass., "They're too stressed out."

Studies have shown, says Migdow, that more than 90 percent of people essentially hold their breath most of the time, "because they're in the fight-or-flight response. And then they breathe shallowly to compensate."

Migdow, co-author of "Breathe In, Breathe Out: Inhale Energy and Exhale Stress by Guiding and Controlling Your Breathing" (Time-Life Books, 1999), encourages his patients to take what he calls "breathing breaks" at least every hour. Studies show that, as tensions build up, people need to shift, move and breath. He counsels people to stop and be conscious of where the tension is in their body, do some gentle stretching, and "be aware of what their breathing feels like, and to breathe more deeply. Then just do it for a minute or so, so that you become conscious of it automatically."

After four to six weeks practitioners naturally begin to sense when they're not breathing because they're beginning to grow conditioned to check in often with their respiration. "Then what happens," he says, "is when stress comes up, you notice it and you stop, stretch and breathe in the moment."

Being conscious of a single breath and staying in the moment, says Saki Santorelli, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is a simple yet valuable perception for easing anxieties about the past and fear of the future - in other words, alleviating stress.

"The only breath that you can actually pay attention to is the one you're now engaged with," says Santorelli, author of "Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine." "If you're shooting off into the future, or spinning your wheels backwards into the past," he says, "you have many less resources to bring to bear on the present moment, which is where it's all happening, now. It's the only moment we're alive. It's a very useful way for people to begin to ground themselves in the present moment. In that sense it begins to keep things a lot simpler. If you can begin to do that in this fleeting something we call the present moment, the future begins to take care of itself."

"Breathing is my drug" says Debbie Rosas, one of the originators of fusion-based fitness, and the co-founder of the world-popular, and Portland-based, Nia, a non-impact aerobics fitness method. "I use the breath to enhance the awareness of sensation in my body." According to Rosas, by developing this awareness and learning how to use our bodies to their full potential, we can live better, longer, and age more gracefully.

Nia is a powerful combination of dance and martial arts-inspired movement, breathing, and sound that holistically creates a quality of relaxation that can be sustained even during periods of intense physical activity. This reservoir of relaxation, power, and awareness can then be drawn upon as practitioners go on about their personal and professional lives.

Rosas finds, as do many others, that the breath plays a central role in everything she does, allowing her to renew the synchronicity of breath, body, mind, and movement. The breath "makes everything subtle, blended, and connected. It is the true place of harmony and peace for me."

Next time you feel you're losing your concentration or creative spark, sense your neck and shoulders tightening up as you hunch over your computer, or you just need to find a moment's peace, look for relief in that next breath of air.

(Don Campbell, a Northwest writer and frequent contributor to the Oregonian, and Alfred Lee, a speaker on conscious breathing and breath work, will release a book on breathing, Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath At A Time (Sterling Publishing) in fall 2008.)

Deep breathing isn't just for mystics. Even a few cleansing breaths, every time you think about it, can pay big dividends.

The single most important thing you can do is to replace the common habit of taking short, shallow breaths, with slower, deeper breaths. This will cause a ripple effect through every dimension of your life.

Our breathing habits develop over decades and don't change over night, but here are two things you can do to quickly adopt slower, deeper breathing:

  • First: Spend 5 minutes (twice a day if possible) practicing slow deep breathing. It doesn't matter when, or where, but try to be consistent. As you practice, aim for at least a six-second breath cycle (inhale two seconds, hold one second, exhale two seconds, hold one second).
  • Second: Find a way to remind yourself as many times a day as you can to stop, notice your breathing, and take two or three deep breaths. It takes less than 30 seconds and helps keep stress from building up during the day and will improve your awareness.
  • Anything that catches your attention can serve as a reminder - a ring or bracelet, a reminder in email program or your PDA, a note on the refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or dashboard. Find one or two that work for you.
As you get more comfortable and experienced, try this more advanced exercise:
  • For stress relief and rejuvenation, lie on your back or sit comfortably in a chair and close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply into your abdomen for 10 counts.
  • Hold your breath for 10 counts, focusing your mind on your abdomen.
  • Exhale the air slowly for 10 counts imagining that the air is flowing from your abdomen to the balls of your feet.
  • Repeat a total of 3 times.
  • Repeat 3 more times, imagining that the air is flowing from your abdomen up your spine and down your arms to the palms of your hands.
  • Repeat 3 more times imagining that the air is flowing up your spine to the top of your head.