[Updated March 8, 2019]
Ancient health practitioners in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine considered breath (prana in the Vedic system and qi in TCM) so important to health that they developed very specific breathing exercises to ensure the effective intake of air energy. We in the West recognize breathing as essential, too, yet we take for granted that its only purpose is providing our “must-have” oxygen—and that’s far from the case.
Western science has started to learn from Eastern tradition and is discovering and documenting the many benefits of deep nasal breathing. These include:
- Reducing blood pressure.
- Increasing availability of oxygen to the tissues.
- Decreasing the workload on the heart.
- Improving sleep and reducing insomnia.
- Reducing of negative emotional states like anger, confusion, fear, depression, or anxiety.
Interestingly, two of the most ancient forms of Eastern practice, qigong and yoga, include a technique called “bone marrow breathing” or “bone breathing” in which one performs very careful deep nasal breathing while focusing attention on different parts of the skeleton. Studies of women practicing qigong showed increased bone density despite the fact that, as an exercise regimen, qigong is extremely low intensity and offers no loading on bones. Yoga, which offers some bone loading, has similar positive results.
Numerous studies also show both qigong and yoga (among others) have positive effects on other health issues that indirectly impact bone, such as blood glucose regulation, improved mood, and heart function. Of particular interest to bone health is the last item in my list above: the effects deep breathing has on negative emotional states. When the lower lobes of the lungs are activated by deep breathing, the parasympathetic fight-or-flight response calms.
I’ve talked before about how stress hormones, specifically cortisol, can be harmful to bone; deep breathing is a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to reverse that through the reduction of stress.
Get started with deep breathing
Here are some basic steps for starting your breathing practice:
• Sit comfortably and tighten and release your muscles, noting how it feels like to relax them.
• Breathe slowly and normally through your nostrils. Your normal breathing is generally quite shallow, so your next step is to begin breathing in and out more deeply—but not so deeply that you feel like you are forcing the breaths.
• Imagine that you have lungs in your belly and that you are creating a gap that you need to fill. Sink into that gap as you breathe in and out.
• Imagine that each breath is bringing in energy. Close your eyes and visualize a bright light that’s powered by your breath. Let go of any draining, heavy thoughts.
• Focus your mind in the direction of what you will accomplish — such as rest or energy building. Use the chart below for suggested inhalation, hold and exhalation counts to achieve these effects.
• Continue your deep breathing as long as it feels good to you. If you find yourself fretting that you should stop, then stop — but next time, try to push such thoughts aside and go longer.
If you’d like other short breathing exercises, we have some available on the on the Better Bones Exercise Evolution. Some can be done while walking, others while seated in meditation. I encourage you to give them a try!
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