Woman's Sports and Fitness November 1998Mike's comments at bottom of article
I consulted my doctor, who took some blood tests, listened to my heart, ordered a chest X-ray and ultimately diagnosed stress. He prescribed a lighter workload. Brilliant man.
Still, my breathlessness persisted. So rather than treat the stress, I decided to take on the breathing and I paid a visit to Michael G. White, a.k.a. the Optimal Breathing Coach of Charlotte, North Carolina, who teaches athletes, professional singers, asthmatics and stress cases like me how to "open, deepen and balance the breathing.
I was hardly expecting that "breathing therapy" which happens to be the latest trend in mind-body healing, was all it was cracked up to be. Despite the impressive fan-fare—more than a dozen books on the subject published last year alone, as well as tapes, videos and workshops at the Learning Annex—1 was skeptical.
How could anything so simple reduce stress and fatigue, improve athletic prowess, aid digestion, lower blood pressure, increase circulation, conquer insomnia, enhance memory, boost sex drive, increase metabolism and relieve depression?
When I demonstrated my idea of a deep breath, White was visibly dismayed. "Many people—particularly women—suck in their stomachs, puff out their chests and draw up their shoulders when they breathe, producing shallow and irregular inhalations," he explained.
"Our society values a flat stomach, but holding it in limits the movement of the diaphragm and prevents you from taking full advantage of your lung capacity. In the end, you expend more energy breathing than necessary, which stresses out the body and the immune system."
White continued his evaluation: He checked my armpits for pressure (not light touch type) ticklishness, (to loosen any muscles that were tense and restricting full lung expansion); squeezed excess air out of my chest by pressing down on my sternum, Heimlich-style (to create a reflex so my rib cage would bounce back and suck in more air); and had me pull out my tongue with a piece of gauze while singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (to relieve any blockage of the windpipe).
The ideal breath, he said, should feel something like this: Place one hand on your stomach between your rib cage and navel, then sniff. (That's your diaphragm.) Place the other hand on your chest and concentrate on using your diaphragm to make the hand on your stomach rise higher than the other.
Extend your exhale to twice the length of your inhale. Techniques for perfecting this rhythm vary among coaches, I later found, from breathing through a straw while seated upright on a rolling pin (to teach you how to suck in smoothly), to lightly tapping the upper chest and intercostal (rib) muscles to stimulate the lungs.
Although I left White's studio feeling relaxed, I wondered if I really stood to benefit from the diligent practice of born-again breathers.
Turns out there's ample evidence that deep breathing, such as the type practiced in yoga, can relax the mind and relieve stress and muscular tension. "When an emotion is very painful, our first reaction is to stop breathing," explains Gay Hendricks, Ph.D., a Santa Barbara psychologist and author of Conscious Breathing.
"It's a protective fight-or-flight reflex triggered by the nervous system. Immediately after, you're flooded with adrenaline, and the sympathetic nervous system, which controls blood circulation, kicks in, making your heart beat faster and your breath quicken. "
Slow breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system-mission control for relaxation—which can slow heart rate and dilate the blood vessels, says Benjamin Levine, M. D., a cardiovascular physiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Psychologically, too, deep breathing helps the mind focus on a single activity, so you don't obsess about the problems that are causing you stress, adds Ralph Fregosi, Ph.D., an associate professor of physiology at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Anyone who has used Lamaze or Bradley breathing techniques in childbirth knows how focusing on breath can distract you from pain.
More controversial, however, is whether learning to inhale can help athletic performance. Some breathologists claim that deep breathing saturates the blood with extra oxygen (which is transported to the muscles for energy during exercise).
Although a recent study of cardiac-failure patients has shown that breath therapy has helped those with respiratory problems to maintain healthy blood-oxygen levels, the benefits for the rest of us are ambiguous.
"It's true that taking deeper breaths puts more oxygen into your blood, but if you're healthy and in a resting state, your cells aren't going to use it. You'll simply exhale the unused oxygen back into the air along with carbon dioxide," says Fregosi.
Once you start exercising, he adds, the system does need more oxygen. But the body takes care of that itself.
Athletes can benefit, though, by strengthening their diaphragm and intercostal muscles to make it less of a strain when they have to breathe hard, says David Brennan, an exercise physiologist and president of the Houston International Running Center.
"Using the abdominal muscles and breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs will increase the amount of air you bring into your body, lower stress and increase respiratory function."
Since my session with Mike, I'd been practicing his exercises daily and felt little more than an occasional head rush. But on a recent run, when I focused on breathing deep into my abdomen, feeling my diaphragm go in and out, I ran three times my normal distance—and felt none of my usual breathlessness afterward.
Was it just the distraction from my tired quads that kept me going? Is there more to deep breathing than hot air? Who knows? Who cares? My shortness of breath has disappeared. —Julia Bourland
From Mike: Breathing Exercises are good tools but they are largely temporary. To ensure lasting benefits most people need repeated re-establishment of their breathing balance depth and ease. This is best effected by our video called the Art and Science of Optimal Breathing Development.