When we are stressed, our body activates the “fight or flight” response. Several involuntary responses follow (sympathetic nervous system), such as the release of stress hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure, the activation of our immune system, etc. With long-term stress, our sympathetic nervous system gets overloaded and contributes to many chronic illnesses.
From the web site, http://www.amsa.org/healingthehealer/breathing.cfm, breath “…can be used to find a balance between the mind-body, the conscious-unconscious, and the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous system.”
Breathing is something that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily. We can use conscious breathing to affect the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system works to counteract the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, we can use conscious breathing to control, or even to reverse, the effects of stress on our body.
As we get older, we tend to breathe shallower than when we were younger. This means that we do not empty our lungs very well and we breathe with the top part of our lungs. Abdominal breathing is a breathing technique that helps you learn to use your lungs better. It helps your body develop the “relaxation response”, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response caused by stress.
To practice abdominal breathing, start in a normal meditation posture. Take several deep breaths with long exhales to allow your mind and body to relax. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Pay attention to how your hands move while you are breathing. Inhale through your nose and consciously expand your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth and contract your abdomen. You should notice that your right hand (on your chest) barely moves. Your left hand (on your abdomen) should move much more. After you become comfortable with this technique, you no longer need to place your hands.
Your exhales should be about twice as long as your inhales. In a yoga class, teachers often have students inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 8.
This breathing technique does not feel natural when we start. With long-term practice, abdominal breathing becomes natural and we always breathe that way.
© 2010 Eric Borreson