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Friday, October 29, 2010

MIND & SPIRIT: Breathing right by breathing less

DID you know that breathing has a far greater impact on our physical, mental and emotional well-being than diet, exercise or sleep? According to Russian medical doctor Dr Konstantin Buteyko, most diseases of modern-day civilisation stem from over-breathing, or hyperventilation.

Since over-breathing is not obvious, it’s called hidden hyperventilation. Its symptoms include upper chest breathing, regular yawning, sighing, sniffing, large breaths prior to talking, panting, shortness of breath, and lack of stamina or endurance. Most of us don’t give the quality of our breathing much thought even though breathing is a fundamental part of our life. It’s only when something goes wrong with our breathing, or if we require breath training for sports, singing or a medical condition, that we stop to think about the way we breathe.

Breath is life. It’s the beginning of life, it sustains life, and no life remains when breath is gone.

Through the ages, the “breath of life” has been equated with the spirit or life force. The ancient world believed that the observation, awareness and the study of the breath were key to achieving physical, mental, emotional and spiritual mastery.

Shilpa Ghatalia, a Buteyko breath practitioner, says many of us don’t breathe naturally because of the constant pressure in our inner and outer lives. We habitually hyperventilate by taking quick, shallow breaths from the top of our chest. These quick, shallow breaths sharply reduce the level of carbon dioxide in our blood and decrease the flow of blood throughout the body. Then our “fight or flight” or stress reflexes will be switched on, making us tense, anxious and irritable. This also reduces our ability to think clearly and magnifies psychological and emotional problems. In this fast-paced society, we either breathe very fast or hold our breath as a coping mechanism. We have learnt to use breathing to cut ourselves off from uncomfortable feelings and sensations. By breathing shallowly, we generally feel less.

Causes of faulty breathing include: 1. Restrictive clothing: We impede our full range of breath by wearing belts or clothes that are too tight, limiting the natural movement of the abdomen.

2. Poor posture — a sunken chest, drooping shoulders, the habit of sucking in the belly to appear slimmer, excess tension in the face, neck, throat, shoulders and respiratory muscles.

3. Physical pain, illness or injury: We have a tendency to hold our breath when we’re in pain or facing any form of stress, be it psychological, emotional or physical.

4. Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of daily exercise, stretching and movement in our daily life conditions our breathing to a narrow range of movement. Many office workers sit immobile at their desks for hours each day.

Ghatalia says we can learn the correct way to breathe by watching how babies breathe. Babies breathe lightly with a relaxed abdomen and change their breathing in a fluid manner. Natural breathing involves the harmonious interplay of the lungs, diaphragm, belly, chest, back and other parts of the body.

Our belly needs to be supple so we can breathe naturally. It needs to be able to expand on inhalation and retract on exhalation. When the belly expands on inhalation, the diaphragm moves downward into the abdomen, allowing the lungs to expand more fully. When the belly retracts on exhalation, the diaphragm moves upward to help the lungs expel gases completely. The movements of the diaphragm and belly slow down our breath rate, take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide more efficiently and help to massage the internal organs. This internal massage has a positive impact on digestion, blood flow and the immune and nervous systems.

Ghatalia believes that authentic breathing such as the Buteyko breathing technique can influence the quality of exercise we get, the way we feel about ourselves, the type of food we eat, and the amount of energy we have, all of which will result in losing or gaining weight naturally.

This breathing technique was founded in the 1950s by Dr Buteyko with the goal of restoring health by retraining the breath to normalise breathing patterns and to induce diaphragmatic breathing. It is a series of breathing exercises to teach people how to breathe less.

It is said to be an effective drug-free approach for the management of asthma and other breathing-related problems.

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