The Belly Breathing Secret

For years yoga masters have told us that belly breathing is essential, that it is the all-clear signal to the body. Have you ever wondered why? Mark Abramson, head of the Stanford University Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, taught me the secret behind belly breathing. It may surprise you; when you listen to someone speak:

  • 75% of what your brain receives comes from body language
  • 17% comes from tone of voice and rhythm
  • 7% comes from the words you hear

We could have a whole discussion on why lecturers would benefit from song and dance training, but that is for another time.
The importance of the above statistics for belly breathing is this:
Inside your body, similar communication is going on. Inner-body language (including the breath) tells your nervous system if it should fight and flee, or rest and digest.

What did you do the first moment we heard about the events of 9/11? You probably gasped.

It turns out that short breaths, high in the chest, engage the anxious, sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the release of adrenalin and other stress hormones that tell your body to fight or flee (or freeze).

Deep belly breathing, on the other hand, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which inhibits the release of stress hormones and produces a relaxed rest-and-digest response.

You have probably practiced belly breathing sometime in your life. Belly breathing has you expand your belly as you inhale a deep-down breath.

Try this:
Close your eyes and picture a beautiful scene, high on a hill, overlooking the ocean. See the sun glistening on the waves and smell the fresh, salty sea air.

Now breathe high in your chest with short, shallow breaths. Take several short breaths. Notice how that feels.

Then, while you continue to take in the beautiful view, shift to deep belly breathing. Feel your breath slowly go deep and low while your belly expands. Take several belly breaths and notice how that feels.

Now open your eyes.

If you are like most people, you found it difficult to take short, shallow breaths while enjoying a beautiful scene. It just doesn’t fit.
Deep belly breathing is much more compatible with enjoying a beautiful scene.

Make it a practice every 30 minutes or so throughout the day to pause and take a few deep belly breaths. Get comfortable with the feeling of deeper breathing.

Then, the next time you are anxious or worried, consciously shift to deep belly breathing. Your parasympathetic nervous system will produce a calming, rest-and-digest response. This can reverse the harmful effects of stress in your body and that will help relieve your anxiety.

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