In the hospital, I have always recommended deep breathing and coughing as a technique to keep the lungs inflated and ward off pneumonia. I tell my patients “the antibiotic will kill the bug, but it is up to you to cough the pneumonia out”.
Deep breathing exercises help inflate collapsed areas of the lungs, move the mucous up the airways to be coughed out, improve blood return to the heart and increase immune system functioning by pumping the lymphatic circulation of the lungs.
It has only been in the last few years that I have learned that deep breathing exercises can also be used to strengthen the mind. Deep Breathing Meditations are the perfect tool to focus the conscious mind and take control of the automatic behaviours that so often run our lives.
The greatest difficulty for me at first was remembering to do the exercises. I did not achieve success until I started using the timer on my watch to remind me.
Every 23 minutes, my watch would beep through my weekend days and I would pause to take a deep breath in and out, saying to myself “Breathing in… breathing out,” as I did so. I find that if I actually hear myself say the words, they drown out the mental chatter that is constantly drifting through my head. “Breathing In… breathing Out… breathing in… breathing out…”.
Start the breath in with the diaphragm, letting the belly fall out as you fill the bottom of your lungs. Finish the breath at the top of the lungs, lifting your chest while taking care not to crunch down with your neck. A good, deep breath requires a straight back and tall neck.
Take command of the muscles of expiration: with measured control, slowly squeeze as much air out of the lungs as is comfortable. Emptying the lungs makes the next breath in even greater.
Dr. Andrew Weil, in his audiobook Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, talks of how breathing is the only function of the body that is controlled both completely consciously and subconsciously. Breathing is the gateway to the autonomic nervous system and can be used to regulate stress. Dr. Weil recommends you make your deep breaths “Deeper, Slower, Quieter and More Regular.”
You can try saying to yourself “Deeper… slower… calmer…” as you deep breathe to help guide your practice. This is especially powerful if you are going to extend your deep breathing exercises over several minutes.
For me, during the day, when my timer chimes, I don’t want my deep breathing meditations to interrupt with several minutes of distraction. Instead, I use my deep breaths to focus my conscious mind over the cycle of only two or three breaths.
“Breathing In”, I fill my lungs. “Breathing out”, they empty. My mind is cleared as I hear the words. With the next breath in, I say to myself “Here” as I focus my attention on my body. I lift my chest, straighten my back and lift my head upwards. How am I feeling? Is there any stress? What is my body trying to tell me?
As I breathe out, I hear the word “Now” and I redirect my attention outward to the environment I am in. What am I doing at this very moment? What sounds do I hear that I did not notice before? What is happening around me? How am I being affected? Do I choose to continue on the path I am on?
Breathing in, I concentrate my attention inward. Breathing out, I expand my awareness to the world around me. In two breaths, I have reconnected my consciousness to the present moment. Instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future, I am Here and Now.
With practice, deep breathing meditations create a pathway in the neural network of the brain to awareness of the present moment. What you choose to do with that moment is up to you.
Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.