When it comes to breathing, babies are the experts. The gentle rise and fall of their bellies as they sleep is a sign they're inhaling for optimal health — deeply, from their diaphragms. But as we age, our breathing tends to become rapid and shallow — an inefficient means of supplying oxygen to our cells, and sending our stress-response systems into overdrive. The result? Burnout, a weakened immune system and disease. But, like many things, we take breathing for granted and don't usually pay attention to it until there's a problem.
While some of us put breathing well at the bottom of our to-do lists, others live for harnessing its power. For centuries, pranayama yoga devotees have tried to manipulate their bodies using controlled breathing techniques. Olympic swimmers, escape artists, competitive breath holders and opera singers attempt to push their physiology beyond its limits by playing with the breath.
For the rest of us, breathing techniques are tools we can use to orchestrate positive changes within our bodies and minds. "Up to 80 percent of illnesses are exacerbated or caused by stress," says Dr. Richard P. Brown, co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath.
"If you teach people to regulate their internal software through breathing, everything else in the body starts to work optimally."
But with pollution indexes soaring in the summer and exposure to pollutants linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, do we really want to be taking big gulps of city air? Short of packing up and moving to the country, most people don't have a choice. Fortunately, regular exercise, a healthy diet and avoiding infection can do a lot to improve lung health and ward off pollution's effects, says Carole Madeley, director of respiratory health programs for the Ontario Lung Association. And on smoggy days, breathe easy: Bring your exercises indoors.
Next: Tackle day-to-day issues drug-free with easy to learn breathing techniques.