By Jim Nicolai, M.D., medical director, Andrew Weil, M.D. Integrative Wellness Program at Miraval
Breathing is the master key to wellness. If you had to learn one thing to optimize health across the board, it would be how to breathe optimally. On one hand, breathing can make you alert and activated, and on the other, calm and relaxed, but only if you know how to get there.
Besides blinking your eyes, breathing is the only thing you can do both consciously and unconsciously. The breath speaks directly to the autonomic (or automatic) nervous system—that part of the body that functions without you having to think about it. There are two parts to this nervous system: alert, or on, and relaxed, or off, with a continuum in between. Breathing offers one of the signals that dictate how this part of your nervous system will respond. Most of us are familiar with the on button but have no clue how to dial this response down, or off.
Yoga at Miraval
I see so many guests at Miraval who have issues with sleeping simply because they cannot turn off their minds. Their bodies are completely exhausted, and yet the thoughts in their head (I call this monkey brain) have hijacked their ability to become quiet and ease themselves into a state of calm. Medicine—either from the pharmaceutical industry or the health food store—will not work in this case.
You want to be able to use your breath to manage stress or an overactive mind. It’s one thing to practice yoga in a classroom when the world around you isn’t going crazy; it’s quite another to rescue yourself from a panic attack. Learning how to breathe fully, deeply and more rhythmically even—using your diaphragm to regulate breaths and optimize lung capacity—can make this happen.
I teach simple breathing exercises in my new book Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living. These are part of a whole array of what I call quick and dirty tools to use that can move us in the direction of health.
Start by doing this simple exercise: exhale first. You want to breathe out first, and at the last part of the exhale, squeeze your abdominal muscles inward so that you point your belly button towards your back. Optimal breathing should be in three parts: on the exhale, your neck and chest go down, then your belly goes in; on the inhale, your belly first goes out, then your chest rises, while your neck and collarbones elevate. Try exhale first for 10 cycles twice daily. Your breathing should look like an Italian Chianti bottle: belly out first then up, up, up, on the inhale; then down, down, down and squeeze your belly in. Try to deflate the balloon when you exhale and inflate it on the inhale. Do this for a count of four-in-and-four-out to get into rhythm. If you can exhale longer than you inhale, so much the better. It activates the relaxation response.
Breathing techniques are simple, but they may not be easy. The trick is remembering to practice them and using them when necessary. Part of the deal is reminding yourself in creative or funny ways. I put post-it notes everywhere when I was learning these techniques that simply said: “Breathe dummy!!!”
They tricked me into doing them. Now I can hijack stress instead of it hijacking me. Give it a try.
You might also like:
The Power of Turning Off & Tuning In: 3 Ways to Give Yourself the Gift of Silence
Working Out at Work: 10 Exercises You Can Do at Your Desk
How to De-Stress at Your Desk: Stress Management Tips for Work
10 Tips on How to Increase Energy & Beat the Afternoon Slump at the Office
Breathe with Purpose: 4 Breathing Techniques for Wellness
Dr. Jim Nicolai is a board-certified family practitioner and a graduate of the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona in Tucson, under the direction of Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Nicolai has a special interest in whole-person medicine, addressing patients as mental and emotional beings, energetic and spiritual entities, and community members, as well as physical bodies. His expertise is in combining conventional medicine with the intelligent use of complementary and alternative therapies, including herbs and other botanicals, vitamins and supplements, lifestyle management, and stress reduction. Read more about our Wellness Week experts.
Dr. Nicolai’s book Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living was released by Hay House Publishing on January 2, 2013. $14.71; amazon.com