Of course we all breathe.  Clearly, if you’re reading this, you’re breathing  But how we breathe also matters.

Fast-paced lifestyles, constricting clothing, pressure to have a “small waist,” a sedentary lifestyle that discourages good posture, and stress have conspired over time to cause a culture in which very few of us breathe in the most natural manner.  We have a tendency to breathe very shallowly, which doesn’t allow for complete oxygen exchange.

The way we breathe has a profound effect on our overall state.  The suggestion to “take deep breaths” to calm yourself is not a simple encouragement for an attitude adjustment; it’s a nudge to change your physiology.

The nervous system has two “sub-systems,” if you will: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is what “runs” the “fight or flight” stress response.  The parasympathetic regulates calmer, “resting” functions.  But the body essentially switches to one or the other at any given time. When one “switches on,” the other “switches off,” and vice versa.  Deep breathing prompts the body to “switch on” the parasympathetic nervous system, effectively shutting down a fight or flight response.

Little children, for the most part, haven’t yet been influenced to abandon their natural patterns of movement, so it can be quite instructive to observe them.  Try watching a baby or toddler breathe.  You’ll probably notice that it isn’t only the upper chest that rises and falls; the whole abdomen expands and contracts.

As a norm, long, slow, deep breaths are ideal.  Deep breathing uses more of the lung capacity, and long, deep breaths allow for a fuller exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  These slower breaths also help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, as previously noted, reducing stress and enabling proper digestion.

But this shouldn’t take work!  Although it might take practice to regain familiarity with this type of breathing, the aim should not be to push the air out of or suck the air into your lungs.  If you learn to simply relax, oxygen should simply flood into your lungs, and the body will naturally prompt you to exhale.

One final factor of note is that (acute illness aside) breathing should always take place through the nose.  Mouth breathing can lead to a number of problems, starting with poor oral development and ending with immune issues and illness.