Mary Helen Robert, LAc
Breathe Deeply & Move Often
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Everyone feels stress from time to time - some of us more than others - but none of us are immune to it. In order to better deal with stress we begin with listening and awareness - What is the body telling us? When we pay attention what we often notice first is restricted/short/shallow breathing (chest breathing). Over time, this chest breathing causes a constriction of the chest and lung tissue, decreasing oxygen flow and delivery to our tissues. Restricted chest breathing causes us to use the muscles in our neck, shoulders, and chests to expand our lungs. This can result in headaches and pain/tension in the aforementioned areas as well as an increased risk of injury. Conversely, deep, rhythmic breathing (diaphragmatic/belly breathing) expands the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle under the lungs, expanding the lung’s air pockets, invoking the relaxation response, and massaging the lymphatic system.
Breathing serves as the pump for the lymphatic system, just as the heart serves the circulatory system. Your cells must have oxygen to survive and to thrive they rely on a complex exchange between the circulatory system and the lymphatic system. Blood flow carries nutrients and ample amounts of oxygen into the capillaries, while a healthy lymphatic system carries away destructive toxins. Proper breathing is the moderator of this exchange.
"Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?" -- Mary Oliver
So what is the lymphatic system? It is often likened to a sewer/filtration system. Lymph vessels form a drainage system throughout the body. Our cells swim in an ocean of lymphatic fluid that carries away the detritus of our immune system, including dead white blood cells, unused plasma protein, water, salts, glucose, fats and toxins.
It works like this: blood is pumped around the body by the heart, transporting nutrients and oxygen to the cells. Once the cells have absorbed what they need, they excrete debris and toxins, which then get flushed and deactivated by lymphatic fluid.
The lymph fluid then drains into the circulatory system through two ducts at the base of your neck, and becomes part of the blood and plasma that pass through the kidneys and liver. But, unlike your circulatory system, your lymph system does not have a built-in pump. It relies on the act of breathing and bodily movement to move all that waste fluid around.
The consequence of a sluggish lymphatic system is that you cannot detoxify properly and waste products can build up in the tissues. And if you aren’t breathing deeply or moving regularly, chances are your lymph fluid is not flowing as well as it could. This can lead to a host of health concerns as well as decreased immunity.
But the great news is that you can improve the cleansing effectiveness of your lymph system by learning to practice deep breathing. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm actually stimulates your lymphatic system and massages your internal organs, helping the body rid itself of toxins, leaving more room in the cells for an optimal exchange of oxygen.
And while you are helping your body to clean house, you’ll also be fighting stress.
The following breathing exercises can teach you how to breathe more fully. They don’t require a lot of time, but work best if you commit to practicing them for a few minutes every day. Over time, you will find that you are breathing more deeply throughout the day.
If you think you can’t find time to practice deep breathing exercises regularly, take a deep resounding breath, and think again. The irony here is that a lot of people forget to breathe because they are so busy listing what they need to do, yet deep breathing is something we can do just about anywhere while doing just about anything — while sitting at a stoplight or waiting in line, grocery shopping, commuting to work, standing in the shower, or sitting in a meeting. Post sticky-notes with the word “Breathe” around your house, your desktop or your steering wheel. The point is, breathing is something you simply must do — so make the most of it and it, in turn, will serve you well.
This type of breathing—also called “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing”—slows your heartbeat and can also lower blood pressure. Researchers have found that diaphragmatic breathing reduces the body’s “fight-or-flight” response by stimulating the activity of the vagus nerve, another important component of stress reduction.
Here’s how to do it:
Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent (if needed, place a pillow under your knees for support).
Put one hand on your upper chest and one below your rib cage, so you can feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
Inhale slowly through your nose, letting the air in deeply, towards your lower belly. The hand on the chest should remain still, while the one on your belly should rise.
Tighten your abdominal muscles and let them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position.
You may find it helpful to envision your diaphragm moving downward with each inhale - this creates more space in your chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand. When you exhale the opposite happens - your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward in the chest cavity expelling air. Practice this type of breathing for five to 10 minutes, three to four times a day. As you get more comfortable with this method, you can even place a book on your stomach to make it a little more challenging (and effective).
Simple Deep Breathing
The most basic thing to remember is that your breath begins with a full exhalation (I know this seems counterintuitive, but it’s true). You can’t inhale fully until you empty your lungs completely. It is also important to breathe in through your nose.
Now try this:
Sit in a comfortable position with your hands on your knees and relax your shoulders.
On your next exhalation, breathe out slowly through your nose, counting to five. Tense your abdominal muscles, drawing in your diaphragm to help your lungs deflate.
At the bottom of your breath, pause for two counts, then inhale slowly to the count of five. Expand your belly as you breathe in.
Pause for two counts and begin again, with emphasis on the pause. You can even pause for 5 seconds: Inhale for 5 - Pause for 5 - Exhale for 5 - Pause for 5.
Think of your diaphragm as the pump and your breath as the power.
Now close your eyes and repeat 5 - 10 times. Doing this for even just one minute can produce quick results - calming the central nervous system.
If you find that your mind wanders during this exercise, don’t worry - just focus on your counting. You may find it helpful to envision you are breathing in more relaxation with each inhale and releasing more tension with each exhale. As your awareness of your breath increases, you’ll find that it becomes easier to breathe deeply without so much attention.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This technique—where you rotate inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other—is a yogic breath control practice. It’s thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, and, as a result, balances your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Here’s how to do it:
Sit in any comfortable seated position.
Relax the body and breathe naturally for a few minutes, allowing your mind and body to settle.
Rest your left hand on your lap or knee.
Lift your right hand to your face so that your pointer and middle fingers rest between your eyebrows.
Close your eyes and inhale and exhale deeply through your nose.
Close your right nostril with your right thumb while inhaling through your left nostril.
Close your left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed for a moment, then open your right nostril and exhale slowly through your right side.
Inhale through your right nostril, then hold both nostrils closed with your ring finger and thumb.
Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through your left side.
Repeat five to 10 times once a day, or as desired.
This breathing technique involves doing deep breathing while focusing your attention on different parts of your body, from head to toe, starting with the top of your head and ending at the toes. Studies have shown that regular practice of the body scan can reduce stress and have a positive effect on emotional and physical well being. It can be done lying down or sitting—whatever’s most comfortable for you.
Here’s how to do a body scan:
While sitting or lying down, close your eyes and pay attention to your body’s position—for example, the weight of your body against the chair or the floor.
Take a deep breath, visualizing oxygen entering your body as you inhale and focusing on a sense of relaxation as you exhale.
Slowly scan your body starting with the top of your head and moving down the face, forehead, nose, mouth and jaw.
And now to the neck and shoulders.
To your upper arms, forearms, wrists, hands, fingers.
Take note of any sensations you may feel, without judging or trying to change anything.
Now to the torso, the chest and upper back.
Be aware of your heartbeat and breathing.
Pay attention to your stomach and lower back.
Notice any thoughts that may be running through your mind, and just let them go, bringing your attention back to your body.
Notice your hips, thighs and knees down to the shins, calves, ankles and feet.
Become aware of your body as a whole, and feel how your whole body is connected.
Finally bring your attention back to your breath, and for a few moments feel your entire body expand and contract with each inhale and exhale
This simple practice can be done as much as you like. Initially, start with short periods of time of three to five minutes before working your way up to at least 20 minutes a few times a week. The more you practice body scan, the more benefits you’ll enjoy. Youtube offers many guided body scan meditations if you would like more guidance - explore and enjoy!
Get Yourself Moving!
“Movement, just like the cell wall, the mitochondria, the cytoskeleton, and the nucleus, is a part of every working cell. Cells don’t work without movement, and you aren’t fully operational without all of your cells working well. The movement of a part today is what affords it the ability to move tomorrow.” - Katy Bowman
The benefits of deep breathing are multiplied when combined with any type of physical exercise. If this is new to you or exercise is difficult for whatever reason you can start slowly with a walk around the block, to the mailbox, or park your car a little farther away from the store than usual. Keep your focus on your breath while adding a bit more movement each day. If you feel tired or winded, rest a minute and breathe deeply. Then try a little more.
Once you have worked up your tolerance for walking, continue your deep-breathing/movement routine by adding two minutes each day. If you can walk at a regular pace without fatigue or pain for 20 minutes, you may be ready to add additional aerobic or resistance training. Consult your medical professional or a personal trainer about what is safe for you.
Commit to taking five deep breaths a day for the next week. Then make it ten. If you start a daily practice of deep breathing, you may be surprised how much easier it will be to start a regular exercise/movement routine. If you are mobile, start walking and breathing (in addition to your five deep breaths). Even 20 minutes a day can make a big difference in how you feel. Pump your arms and legs, breathe through your nose and smile!
Make Time For Yourself A Priority
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” – Audre Lorde
So often, we make time for everyone else, rising to meet the demands of others before we nurture ourselves. Learning how to breathe more fully and deeply is a very small but vital way to honor yourself and your miraculous life. In many cultures and religions, breath is life — a divine connection to a force that binds us all to the ebb and flow of nature.
By taking a few moments in your day to really pay attention to the inhalation and exhalation that supports your life, you will slowly and surely move toward a healthier, happier place. Remember, small changes add up to big improvements — and what better way to begin than breathing?