Simple Breathing Exercises to Wake Refreshed
Breathing is the foundation of human life, yet so many of us breathe incorrectly. Poor posture, too much sitting and a cultural tendency to hold our breath all contribute to shallow “neck breathing,” which can be detrimental to sleep and, therefore, overall health.
Neck breathing is characterized by short, shallow breaths—you may notice your chest, not your abdomen, rising or expanding. The problem is that this breathing pattern inhibits the diaphragm, the sheet of skeletal muscle that makes room for your lungs to expand with oxygen, and then contract, expiring carbon dioxide.
Neck breathing can also cause unnecessary stress by triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. In his book, Deskbound: Standing up to a Sitting World, Dr. Kelly Starrett explains how short, shallow breathing increases tension and alertness, neither of which will help with a good night’s sleep.
“The ability to recognize stress breathing and react with the appropriate stress hormones is a useful adaptation when you’re chasing dinner prey or defending your babies against lions,” Starrett says. “But just as drinking coffee all day long impairs your ability to wind down and go to sleep, so too does the stress signal that you are sending to your brain throughout the day by neck breathing.”
Alternatively, deep breathing that engages the diaphragm tells the body’s nervous system that no imminent threats are present, and that it’s okay to relax. “Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange—that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide,” according to Harvard Health Publications. “Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.”
Steps for Effective Breathing
Are you guilty of neck breathing? Starrett recommends using this diaphragmatic breathing exercise to relax before bed and teach yourself to breathe efficiently:
- Lie on your back. This can be done in bed, but the floor or a firm surface is preferable. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the ground in front of your hips.
- Rest your hands on your belly, near your navel.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose. Direct the air into your belly. You should feel your hands rise as your lungs fill with air.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth or nose. Notice how your hands move downward as your diaphragm pushes carbon dioxide out of the lungs.
- Repeat slowly for 5 to 10 minutes. Your hands should continuously rise and fall with your breaths.
While this breathing exercise can help your bedtime routine, you can do it any time you catch yourself breathing shallowly or holding your breath. While lying on your back aids relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing can also be practiced sitting or standing. Just place your hands on your belly and follow steps three through five.
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