Monday, September 22th, 2008
(This is a translation from portuguese. The original post can be found here)

Breathing is an involuntary function of the human body, so we don't need to think of it to make it happen. With all the emotions and events in our daily lives, both our breathing and breathing rate constantly change. If we have an accelerated breathing pattern, instead of a deep one, our corresponding "state of mind" will not be the best, and our physical abilities decrease.
However, it's possible to influence breathing by exercises, making it voluntary and conscious in small periods. In yoga, those techniques are named Pranayama (prana=breathing, life, energy, strength + yama=control). Here is a suggestion of an exercise that everybody can do (yoga students or not).
Abdominal breathing is a simple exercise that you can do, for example before going to sleep, in the beginning of a yoga class or in any other situation during the day when you need to relax. To better understand how it works, you can observe a baby breathing, with his belly going up and down, as he mainly uses the diaphragm to breathe. As we become adults, we start losing that and sometimes the thoracic breathing is used too much.
There are several ways to practice the abdominal breathing. Here are some ideas:

1. Put yourself in a position where your spine won't be curved to allow a natural function and expansion of all breathing systems. For example, you can lay down with the belly up (with the knees flexed or not), sit down (with your back totally straight) or stand up. Above all, you should be comfortable, specially if you are going to do a long exercise. However, in any daily situation, if you feel like it, you can do one or two breathing cycles without major preparations (in an exam, in a meeting, in the subway, while in traffic, etc.).

2. Only use your nose to breathe. If necessary, clean your nostrils before the exercise with the help of a tissue, filling your lungs and then expelling the air hard and in a single blow by contracting your abdominal muscles.

3. Don't do the exercise after eating and during the digestion process. It is best to be fasting, though a light snack or the ingestion of liquids should not cause discomfort.

4. Relax before you start. Choosing a quiet and pleasant environment is also important. Clear your mind and begin to monitor your breathing.

5. Inhale slowly, completely filling your abdomen with air (like a balloon), making it rise. Next and keeping a slow rhythm, exhale, making your abdomen go down. Although there might be a tendency for the expiration to be longer than the inspiration, I think the most important thing is that you follow your own pace. Repeat this step by starting another breathing cycle. Also, keep the following points in mind.

6. Don't make your breathing too forceful. Don't inhale or exhale in an exaggerated manner and don't make the exercise too long. Above all, respect your body, otherwise you will create tension. The same applies to the frequency of exercise. Only do it if it feels good.

7. If you can't turn off your mind and find it difficult to concentrate, you can try some peaceful music (for instance, the background music of this site) or focus on slowly counting while inhaling and exhaling (for example, inhale while you count to 4 and exhale while you count to 6).

8. With practice, it's obvious that you'll increase your breathing ability. You can adjust the exercise by increasing the inhaling/exhaling counting. You can also hold the air in your lungs for a few moments (before exhaling) and then hold your breath with them empty (before inhaling). Only do it if it is almost spontaneous, otherwise you'll get out of breath. Don't forget that the goal is precisely the opposite.

9. Let your breathing flow again in an involuntary manner, by getting your attention out of it.

You will probably manage to slow down your heart rate and you'll feel more relaxed. Considered by the WHO as a "global epidemic" and by the UN as the "disease of the 20th century" (and one that still continues to be a major issue in the 21st century), stress is the cause of many of the severe diseases that we know. So, if you succeed in doing this breathing exercise correctly, you'll get a lot of benefits, both physical as well as mental.

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