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Breathe Consciously and Mindfully
by Donald Altman • Portland, OR


woman sitting in yoga poseHow many breaths do you take in a day? Close your eyes and count your breaths for the next minute. If you do the math, you will discover that we take approximately twenty thousand breaths a day. And yet, how many of those breaths are we consciously aware of?

This is exactly how we unlock mindfulness – by taking what is unconscious and shining the light of consciousness on it. By intentionally taking a diaphragmatic breath (aka belly breath), we turn on the body’s innate relaxation system and thermostat.

What is more, to notice the breath is to appreciate our own precious being and to contact the essence of our presence. With the breath, we peer behind the veil at how we come into this world needing and gasping for the breath of life. Holding onto the breath leads to suffocation. Living requires a constant letting go. This in itself is a powerful lesson in nonattachment. Each breath teaches us that holding on too long to anything creates pain and suffering. Letting go is nature’s way, and this is no small thing.

From the physical perspective, it only takes three conscious diaphragmatic breaths to reduce our blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration rate; to cleanse the blood of lactate; and to generate alpha brain waves, which put us in “the zone.” Diaphragmatic breathing also releases serotonin, the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter, into our bloodstream. Perhaps most astonishing of all is that belly breathing can accomplish this in only twenty seconds.

Physiologically, breathing into the deepest part of our lungs pushes on the diaphragmatic wall, the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. The downward movement of the diaphragm compresses the abdomen and forces it outward. This in turn causes the gut to press on the vagus nerve (a bundle of cranial nerves running down the inside of the spine), which triggers the relaxation response and releases serotonin from the gut into the bloodstream to take to the brain.

When we breathe shallowly, or high in the chest, we don’t get these benefits. In fact, chest breathing makes us vulnerable to the body’s alert-and-alarm system, the fight-or-flight syndrome that floods the body and brain with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. After just three to four days of this, your body enters a chronic stress state, which is very debilitating. It adversely affects our sleep, creates cravings for high-fat foods and sugar, and inhibits our immune system, even destroying T cells and NK (natural killer) cells, which the body uses to defend itself from sickness. Breathing mindfully and consciously to de-stress the body is a form of self-healing. It’s also worth mentioning that conscious breathing trumps the stress response because both of these systems cannot operate at the same time. The brain-body wants to cool itself down from stress, and it could use assistance.

Now, let’s try this for real. To begin, observe whether you are breathing into your chest or your belly. You can do this by placing the palm of one hand directly on your chest and the other on your belly as you breathe normally. If the hand over your chest is moving or both hands are moving, you are taking shallow breaths. Only when your lower hand is moving are you breathing fully into the belly. (If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, then you may be taking too deep of a breath.) Taking a breath is like pouring water into a glass: the bottom fills up first, and if you keep pouring, the upper half gets full. The point of conscious breathing is to move air to the lower lungs with a normal breath. And if you are still not sure which hand is moving, look in the mirror as you breathe.

If you are a chest breather, don’t worry. We are all born to breathe diaphragmatically. Look at any baby and you will notice its little belly rising and falling with each breath. We are designed to belly breathe. Our ribs are interlaced with muscles called the intercostals; the intercostals hinge the ribs open so we can take a deeper breath. With conscious breathing, we are relearning to breathe the way nature intends. Stretching the intercostals is easy to do. Clasp your hands behind your back. (If you are sitting in a chair, you may want to scoot forward to do this.) Notice that this is the same arm position soldiers use when they assume the “at ease” stance. Observe your breath.

Do you notice your abdomen rising or expanding more now that you are opening your rib cage? (If you are a woman who feels uncomfortable about your stomach moving outward because of cultural conditioning around the shape of women’s bellies, practice in private.) Are your stomach muscles relaxed? They need to be for diaphragmatic breathing, so soften the abdominal muscles whenever you practice.

Another position that opens the rib cage and makes belly breathing easier has us place our hands behind our head, elbows out to the side. This is the same posture athletes often take to get a deeper breath after exerting themselves. Again, observe where the air is going with each breath. Which position – hands behind the back or hands behind the head – works best for you? You can also belly breathe effectively while standing up. It is important to integrate conscious breathing into our lifestyle.

You may experience a sense of calm after breathing like this. Let your body experience whatever feeling occurs. With practice, you will invite the joy of conscious breathing into all parts of your day, and over time, you will start to notice whether your breath is shallow or deep. By bringing breath into your field of awareness, you will retrain your body to use its natural thermostat to manage stress.

Donald Altman is the author of The Mindfulness Code and Meal by Meal. He is an adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark College Graduate School, teaches at Portland State University, and conducts mindful living and eating workshops nationally. Donald is also a member of the Dzogchen Foundation and the Burma Buddhist Monastery Association.Visit him online at www.mindfulnesscode.com.

Excerpted from the book The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness ©2010 by Donald Altman. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com.