As humans, we can live more than two weeks without food, three or four days without water, but only a minute or two without breathing. We are born with the drive to breathe, and we will continue to do so automatically until we take our last breath. Every breath isn’t exactly the same, though, is it? Pause for a moment and just observe your breathing. If you’re calm and relaxed, your breath is likely long and full, filling your entire torso. If you’re feeling pressured or anxious, you may notice a shallow, rapid breath. The breath is affected by our emotional state, and our emotional state affects the breath.
In a normal resting state, we only use a small portion of our breath capacity and respiratory muscles. We tend to take short breaths, moving only the upper chest, all on automatic pilot. But we can alter our breath, at least to a certain extent. The breath can be sped up or slowed down, made fuller or more shallow. We can change the length of the inhale or exhale, and use our muscles to move the air more forcefully. All of these patterns can be helpful at times, and the yogic techniques called Pranayama make full use of them. But breath work doesn’t have to be complex or difficult to be effective.
One of the first techniques I teach many patients is the Yogic Three-Part Breath. It is an excellent way to get acquainted with your breath pattern, and with all the muscles that can be involved in breathing. It’s called the Three-Part Breath because we will think of the torso in three sections: below the navel, from the navel to the mid-chest, and from mid-chest to the collar bones. The lungs clearly don’t expand into our low belly when we breathe, but we can and should be using our abdominal muscles to make the most of our breath. It can be helpful to practice this technique lying flat, with one hand on your low belly, and another on your chest. Try to breathe through your nose.
Start by inhaling slowly while inflating your low belly. You want to feel your hand moving up as you inhale. You may have to push the muscles to create this movement. If it’s difficult to feel, try placing a book on this area, and practice pushing it up with each inhale. This is the first part of the breath, and usually the most challenging. But, this is diaphragmatic breathing, or a deep belly breath. Simply breathing into your abdomen in this way will calm your nervous system.
Part two expands the inhale into the mid-chest. After inhaling and filling the belly, extend the inhale and picture the air rising into your chest, lifting and expanding your ribs before you exhale. The rib cage goes all the way around the torso, so feel the ribs moving in the back as well as the front, the entire circumference growing outward.
Part three brings the inhale to its fullest capacity. Again, start by inhaling into the belly, then lifting and expanding into the mid-chest. Now continue your inhale, extending the sternum and broadening the collar bones, filling your lungs completely before exhaling. This is a huge inhale, but try to remain relaxed and at ease throughout, never forcing or packing the air in, just allowing all parts of the torso to fill with the breath. With an inhale so full, the exhale will naturally lengthen as well, calming the body even more. Try to do several minutes of the full three-part breath. If you feel anxious or short of breath at any time, return to normal breathing immediately.
I recommend practicing this breath every night before bed, it will trigger the relaxation response, allowing the body and mind to settle and prepare for rest. Practicing when you are calm will help you learn the technique well, so it will be easy to use when needed. Then use it anytime you are feeling stressed: before a meeting at work or a tense conversation, or even when stuck in traffic. The best part is that the breath is completely portable, always available, and has no side effects. The relaxation response, right at your fingertips. Try it for yourself.