Improving your body and mind with breathing exercises

As we all know COVID 19 affects breathing.

A quick test of your breathing mentioned early on in the COVID crisis was, “can you hold your breath for 10 seconds?”. This was social media misinformation.

University of Maryland Chief Quality Officer and Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Faheem Younus tweeted on March 16: “Wrong: Most young patients with coronavirus will be able to hold their breaths for much longer than 10 seconds. And many elderly without the virus won’t be able to do it.” Most people in good health can hold their breath for approximately two minutes but like most physical abilities this varies with health and age. However, they also warn that depriving your body of oxygen can have many negative effects, so don’t make a habit of holding your breath for very long!

The longest time breath has been held voluntarily (male) is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura Vendrell (Spain), in Barcelona, Spain, on 28 February 2016. Aleix Segura Vendrell is a professional free diver.

Should I breathe through my mouth or my nose?

Breathing through the nose is preferred as the nose has hairs to help filter and warm the air and the nose allows us access to a small portion of nitric oxide that we carry into our lungs. Nitric oxide is necessary to release carbon dioxide in the blood, which is what releases oxygen, maintaining the balance of gases in our bodies. Nitric acid helps dilate our lungs and blood vessels while providing antibacterial properties to clear out germs and bacteria.

There are many different ways we breath depending on what we are doing and many different breathing exercises. Our breathing is affected by stress, disease, illness, exercise, excitement, relaxation, and fun. Breathing exercises can help strengthen our breathing muscles, mainly our diaphragm and the intercostals but can also help us relax, focus, and recover from or improve illnesses that affect our breathing such COVID-19, COPD, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and are given after surgeries or illness to prevent pneumonia and restore health. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, relaxation methods, exercise, and many different spiritual and exercise practices use breathing for the mind and the body. 

The diaphragm is a large muscle located on the bottom of your rib cage and is the main breathing muscle. If you imagine your rib cage to be a barrel, the bottom would be the diaphragm. You can actually palpate the diaphragm by hooking your fingers under your ribs on the front of your body. As you take a deep diaphragmatic breath, the diaphragm will descend and push your fingers out. This is a good way to learn to do diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing (DB) is relaxing and efficient and used by physical therapists, singers, actors, and dancers for these purposes. DB  relaxes us and our bodies by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system ( the relaxing part of the autonomic nervous system) The autonomic nervous system, is also thought of as the “automatic” nervous system, because we don’t have to think of what it controls,  controls our organs, our temperature, sweat, breath, heart rate, bowel, bladder and modulates normal muscle tension. The other part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous, also known as the “Fight or Flight” nervous system. The parasympathetic and sympathetic are like Ying and Yan and when in balance we are in balance so by stimulating the parasympathetic NS we calm the sympathetic, reducing that feeling of “fight or flight”. 

Diaphragmatic breathing

  • Sit or lie down in a relaxed and supported position and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly
  • Breathe in feeling the belly rise while keeping the chest quiet. Close your eyes and imagine your diaphragm and lower rib cage expanding like the sides and bottom of a barrel expanding and then returning to neutral . 
  • Concentrate on slow, low, relaxed breathing 

Lateral costal breathing

The intercostals are the muscles between the ribs. The ribs and these muscles wrap around you, attaching from the sternum in the front into the spine in the back.  (picture of ribs front and back)

  • Place your hands on the outside of your rib cage or place a stretchy band like TheraBand snuggly around your lower rib cage, allowing room for the ribs to fully expand into your hands or the belt. 
  • Concentrate on slow, low, relaxed breathing

Accessory breathing

People who have difficulty breathing use their accessory muscles such as the sternocleidomastoid in the neck to assist breathing by lifting the rib cage. This is inefficient and labored breathing but can be seen by people with COPD -chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by smoking such as emphysema or chronic asthmatics. Practicing diaphragmatic and lateral costal breathing with help improve breathing efficiency. Pursed lip breathing PLB can also help by creating negative pressure in the airways to make it easier for air to move in. 

  • PLB consists of exhaling through pursed lips -as in blowing a flute, and inhaling through the nose.

YOGA Breathing

The term “Pranayama” is associated with breathing itself, which is said to provide you with a healthy mind, body and spirit. It is used throughout Yoga practice to focus the mind and body and the different breathing methods have different purposes. 

Ujjayi Breathing, which means victorious, is used to bring Prana (energy work). It helps to lengthen the breath.

  • Exhale and inhale, while slightly tensing the throat, like fogging a mirror but doing this with sealed lips making a slight noise to keep attention on the breath

Skull Brightener Breath or Kapalabhati Pranayama, fills your skull with the brightness of enlightenment

  • Perform a series of short, proactive exhales followed by slower, more passive inhales. To fully realize the exhales, the muscles of the lower abdominals force the air out of the lungs through a strong contraction. 
  • When you release the contraction, your body’s natural ability inhales. 

Alternate Nostril Breathing or Nadi Shodhan Pranayama in Sanskrit, which translates to “subtle energy clearing breathing technique”, has many benefits including revitalization, enhanced mental function by sharpening your concentration, lung cleansing, calmness, bringing the mind into the present and out of the past. The ancient Yogi taught that if you learn to control your breath you can learn to control your worrying mind. 

  • Sit in a comfortable position with the spine long and the hips relaxed. Release any tension from your jaw and close your eyes. 
  • Place your left hand on your left knee with the palm face upward, or in the Chin Mudra by pressing the index finger and thumb together. 
  • Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows with the ring finger and little finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril. 
  • Use the ring finger and little finger to open and close the left nostril and use the thumb for the right nostril. On an exhalation, close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril. Breathe in through the left nostril and then close with the ring finger. Release the thumb on the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, close with the thumb, release the ring finger from the left side and exhale through the left nostril.
  • These two full breaths are called one round of Alternate Nostril Breath.
  • Perform 5 to 9 rounds of this alternating breath between the nostrils.
  • Remember to always inhale through the same nostril you just exhaled through.

Lion’s Breath not only stretches the muscles in your face, but it also relieves tension and tightness while improving circulation. It’s an energetic and awakening breath that will also help to ease the mind and by opening the throat chakra and helps to boost confidence.

To practice this breath when you are at rest, come to kneel with your buttocks resting on your feet or assisted by sitting on a Yoga block. Iyengar instructs you to crisscross your ankles under your seat. Alternatively, use this breath while in a pose that you can hold for a period of time.

  • Place your hands on your knees. Straighten your arms and extend your fingers.
  • Inhale through your nose.
  • Exhale strongly through the mouth, making a “ha” sound. As you exhale, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue as far out as possible towards your chin and roll your eyes upward.
  • Try bringing your drishti (internal focus) towards your third eye (center of your forehead) or the tip of your nose as you exhale.
  • Inhale, returning to a neutral face.

Repeat 4-6 times. If your ankles are crossed, switch the feet so the opposite one is on top halfway through your repetitions.

Female Honey Bee Humming Breath (Bhramari) – 

  • Fully inhale. Then, use your index fingers to close your ears. 
  • Exhale while making a soft humming sound, like a honeybee.

Breath of fire strengthens the nervous system; creates calm. Kapalabhati clears the body from the constant intake of toxins, thus detoxifying it by helping to replace any toxic air with fresh air.

It is excellent for respiratory problems. This stimulating breath can do wonders for every single tissue in your body.

It increases blood circulation and is good for the abdominal organs from the pressure applied to these organs while breathing and exhaling.

The abdominal area is toned with the help of this breathing technique. It helps clear the entire nervous system which proves to be very useful in making the body fit.

Not recommended during active infection.

  • Sit comfortably with spine elongated,hand on belly 
  • Start panting like a dog, breathing rapidly, rhythmically and continuously through your nostrils with equal emphasis on inhalations and exhalations. Concentrate on the power at the naval and solar plexus. 
  • Abdomen expands on inhalation and snaps back on exhalation-the opposite of diaphragmatic breathing 
  • Coming  out of breath of fire has its own special technique-pull naval up and in and draw the groin up away from the floor in a Yogic lock to hold the breath in. 

Repetitions -with practice you may do 2-3 sets of 30 seconds with a few smooth, long breaths in between, eventually reaching four minutes at a rate of four breaths per second.

Box Breathing

Best for: Slowing the breath for focus and deliberation, physical training, and quitting smoking.

Box breathing is a technique used by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, to aid slow, calm deliberation and respiratory strengthening. Box breathing is a great way to calm the nerves and work toward physical fitness. It can help individuals regulate involuntary bodily functions, such as body temperature. Additionally, holding the breath allows a healthy buildup of carbon dioxide.

Like most proper breathing techniques, box breathing requires the practitioner to breathe through the nose and expand the breath through the belly or diaphragm.

How to Box Breathe:

  • Inhale for a five-second count.
  • Hold the breath in for another five seconds.
  • Exhale for five seconds.
  • Hold the breath from another five-second count.

Qi Breathing

Best for: Improving quality of life through increased motivation, health, and energy.

Developed from traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine with a modern approach, Qi is a meditative deep breathing technique. It helps to focus the mind on goals to channel motivation. 

How to begin with Qi:

  • State your intention for your breathing session. For example, you might want to find energy and motivation, or you might want focus and relaxation.
  • Inhale and exhale deeply and quickly through the nose in one-second bursts. Imagine your breath moving in a circle through your body, as it flows up the back of the spine and then down the front.
  • Incorporate a rocking movement with the breathing by rocking forward to your knees on the exhalation and the backward on the inhalation. Focus primarily on the inhalation and the ability to draw in energy.
  • Maintain your focus in your breath and keep a quiet mind.

At the end of a Qi breathing practice, you might find deep peace or energetic bliss. Shorter Qi breathing sessions can last for three minutes, but longer meditative Qi breathing can last up to thirty minutes.

Ideal breathing is slow horizontal breathing, expanding the rib cage that encircles the lungs and lowering the diaphragm for strong, efficient breathing, getting the air down to the lower lobes of the lungs. Efficient breathing is essential for the health of our body and our mind as our cells rely on oxygen and as you have read breathing exercises can relax us, energize us and focus us. It is essential to our health, fitness and overall well being.