Good Breathing Techniques

Health, Home & Family
on February 25, 2001

Stressed-out adults may find it next to impossible to sleep like a baby, but most of us can—and should—breathe like infants, say medical experts.

“When babies, along with singers and star athletes, breathe, their bellies, not their chests, rise and fall,” explains Dr. James S. Gordon, director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Gordon estimates he has taught correct breathing to “tens of thousands of people in 25 years,” including cancer patients, health professionals, mothers, children with attention deficit disorder, and even refugees in war-torn Kosovo. “Anyone,” he emphasizes, “can use this technique as a powerful tool to create relaxation, alleviate anxiety, and improve overall health.”

With belly breathing, air reaches the lower portion of the lungs, producing multiple benefits. “Blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, muscle tension eases,” Gordon says. That, in turn, mobilizes the body’s capacity for self-healing: “Relaxation is the state in which the body mends itself.”

Proper breathing also can aid emotional healing. “It’s the single best anti-stress remedy we have,” Gordon says. “Reminding ourselves to breathe deeply brings us into the present, away from the mind that constantly worries about past or future.” It’s unfortunate, he notes, that growing up in a stressful world, children and adults lose the infant’s natural, soothing breathing patterns.

Not to worry. Regaining easier breathing is easy, Gordon says. To encourage belly breathing, he suggests saying to yourself, “Soft,” as you breathe in, and “Belly” as you breathe out. Use a kitchen timer so you don’t have to look at the clock. Do this two to five minutes daily, morning and evening.

“If thoughts come, let them go and gently bring your mind back to soft . . . belly,” he advises. “The more you work with your breath, the more this new pattern becomes a part of you. When something stressful does come up, remind yourself to slow down—and take a deep breath.”

Simply going for a walk also promotes healthy breathing, says Dr. Pamela Peeke, author of Fight Fat After Forty. She strides almost 25 miles a day, taking patients out for a short “walk and talk,” she says. “You can’t walk and take shallow breaths,” she says. “Automatically, people begin breathing deeply.”

“If you breathe deeply,” Peeke says, “you’ve learned to control one of the greatest resources you have—the ability to bring oxygen to your body tissues, muscles, and brain most effectively.”