Monday, October 26, 2009


It was recently suggested by Jennifer Oliver that I write something about breathing exercises and I thought it was such a good idea. One of the quickest and most effective ways I know of to either calm down or perk up is through breathing technique.

First, here's my favorite stress-release breath that I learned from reading Dr. Andrew Weil's work. It's perfect for times when you've been pushing through a deadline and you've stopped for a break. Standing, sitting, or lying down, gently straighten your back so that your entire breathing system, from your nose to the bottom of your belly, has plenty of room. Now inhale through your nose to a count of 4, hold your breath without tightening your throat (this is important!) for a count of 7, then softly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Wait a second or two and repeat 3 times. The length of time that passes for each count isn't important, it's the ratio of 4:7:8 that makes this breath work.
When you're doing the breath-holding part, be sure you're not creating a lot of tension or increasing your blood pressure too much by holding in too much air or by clamping your throat shut.
This is good when you're stuck in traffic or waiting in a line somewhere that's trying your patience.

Next, a calming/balancing breath that employs a cool visualization. Again, from whatever position you're in, gently straighten your back, then inhale through your nose. Imagine that the breath slowly floats down a line that goes from your heart to the bottom of your pelvis (called Sushumna). Imagine that the base of your pelvis is a trampoline that, on the exhale,slowly sends the breath back up the same line it came down to "fan" your heart from the bottom up.
Do this for at least 5 or 10 breaths. If you have time, you can do this for as long as you like. It's a good breath to use while you're doing stretching exercises that you hold for longer times because it relaxes your body into the stretch in a very natural way. I love using this breath. I'm convinced that it's one of the fastest ways to get a nice dose of happy chemicals from your brain whenever you want it.

The perking-up breath is sort of like a dog panting, except it's just in and out of your nose. But the idea is to breath in and out very quickly with short little breaths. You'll be using your stomach muscles to accomplish this. It can take a little time to get those muscles to be coordinated enough to do this smoothly for more than a few breaths. So start with just a few of these panting breaths and end with a deep exhale. Build up slowly to do 10, 20, or 30 of these quick panting breaths before the deep exhale.

Thanks for the inspiration, Jennifer!


  1. Thank you Julie! I had always wondered about the breathing techniques that I've heard Dr. Weil mention on some of his PBS specials. I caught the tale end of one during the question and answer period and most of the people in the audience prefaced their questions with "I also want to say that I love the breathing; it's really changed a lot for me..." After about the forth person commented on "the breathing" I thought "Wow, there really must be something to that"! So I just tried the stress relief breath-perfect timing because I've had two almost-all-nighters in a row on an intense project- and I do indeed feel calmer. I look forward to trying the rest!

    I have one that I learned as a part of an exercise routine years ago that really seems to clear out the cobwebs. Take a deep breath through your nose only, completely filling your lungs, hold for a second or two, then breath out through your mouth only, forcing all the air out of your lungs (which usually makes a funny sound). Now do any kind of stretch, such as touching your toes while standing or arching your back while on all fours. Hold the pose for a count of ten without breathing, then inhale again through both nose and mouth. It really oxygenates the system, especially if you can do a full bodies worth of stretches. You'll feel awake, clear headed and refreshed when you're done....and maybe just a tad dizzy if you've been sitting most of the day!

  2. Hi Julie,

    This is a very excellent set of exercises indeed. It is very similar to some of those breathing exercises that I teach my Martial Arts students since the essence of the Martial Path is one of inner calm and self discovery.

    I am always interested and really appreciate the info you are taking the time to publish here on your fitness BLOG. This is terrific stuff for anyone, even active athletic folks, and for people who spend significant time sitting in one place (as do we scientists and you artists) it is absolutely valuable.

    I certainly know the advantages of staying fit and your insights and advice to folks wanting to do so are terrific.


  3. This might help also.
    Article by Micheal Colgan

    Part 1
    Correct breathing is in rhythm with movement, is vital for both oxygenating your tissues and stabilizing your core.Athletes at rest take about 12-15 breaths a minute. The best tend to breath slowest and deepest. At 15 breath’s a minute, you breathe 900 breaths every hour, over 20,000 breaths every day. In concert with good structure and muscular development, breathing is our most important source of power. The form and rhythm and timing of the breath affects every movement we make. Yet most of the people we test breathe poorly. Imagine any other action in sport or in life that is practiced poorly 20,000 times a day. Disastrous!
    The common faults we see are:

    1. Chest breathing
    2. Exhaling at the point of effort.
    3. Breathing that is uncoordinated with movement.

    Three-Part Breathing
    We teach Power Breathing for sport (and for life) as a three-part process.
    Step1, and most important, inhale into the lower third of your lungs.
    This is the area most richly endowed with oxygen receptors. The easiest way to learn, is to push the diaphragm down by sticking out your belly, the relaxed “belly breathing” taught in yoga for at least 3000 years. As you improve, you learn to push the diaphragm down while holding the transversus in, so as to increase intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the core. Start by learning belly breathing and work from there.

    Step 2, fill the middle third of your lungs by expanding the ribcage sideways.
    You should be able to place your fingers on a person’s outer ribs, under the arms, and feel the ribcage widen by at least two inches.

    Step 3 is to fill the top of the lungs by raising the chest.
    For many people, chest breathing is all they ever do. They never properly oxygenate their tissues nor activate their Inner Unit, yet wonder why they fatigue easily, and cannot make powerful movements.
    Coordinating Breathing with Effort
    The second major fault we see is exhalation at the point of effort. This practice arose primarily because academics, whose biggest exertion was probably tying their shoes, told insurance companies that holding the breath during effort increases intra-abdominal pressure, raises blood pressure and puts the heart and arteries at risk. So, for insurance purposes, many gym clients are taught to exhale as they make an effort.

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  5. Part 2

    It is true that retained breath on effort raises intra-abdominal pressure. That’s exactly how the body is programmed. Intra-abdominal pressure stabilizes the core. That’s why you inhale sharply as an evolutionary reflex when faced with a sudden threat. As part of our ancient fight-flight system, the body is programmed to inhale to stabilize the core, to make the body as strong as possible for fighting or fleeing.

    In the Power Program, we take advantage of this superb fight-flight reflex, to apply maximum effort by inhaling immediately before effort, and momentarily retaining the breath during the rapid concentric contraction, then releasing the breath evenly during the slow eccentric contraction. Unless your client knows how to do this breathing, they will never be able to apply maximum effort. Worse, if you habitually use the exhale-on-effort nonsense taught in many gyms, you will be weak in movement on the sports field, and highly subject to lower back injury as the destabilized core has to use the spine to take the load. At the Colgan Institute we teach boxers, martial artist, and all combat athletes to strike their opponent just as they finish exhaling, because that is when the body is weakest. All the top coaches we know teach the same.

    “Small Hole” Exhalation
    You can maintain your strength during exhalation by learning to exhale with the “small hole” technique. The easiest method is to push half the breath out suddenly through pursed lips, a technique taught to asthma patients to increase oxygen absorption. The sudden push momentarily increases intra-lung pressure, which also pushes down the diaphragm and further strengthens the core. There is also a genetically programmed reflex retraction of the upper abdominal wall. More difficult, but far superior, is to learn to narrow the throat, for small-hole exhalation, the way of controlling the breath taught in advanced martial arts.
    To benefit most from small-hole exhalation, you have to coordinate the sudden push of breath exactly with the instant of greatest effort in a movement, or the point of impact in a kick or punch. Good examples are the “Ki-eee” shout in martial arts, and the closed-mouth grunt of boxers at the moment they strike. Try the grunt yourself now, with your core tight, and feel your abdomen retract further to increase stabilization. Timing is critical, however, and we see many poorly trained athletes who make the forced exhalation before the point of impact. They immediately lose 10-20% of their power.

    Original Article by Micheal Colgan

    Sorry its so long Julie.Didn't mean to hijack your blog here.

  6. Wow! Jen and Donnie, those are some great comments and additional breathing instructions! All beautifully explained, too. I'll be trying Jen's idea of stretching while holding an exhale when I do my yoga this evening.
    Michael Colgan is great. I hadn't really thought about the fact that breath-holding when under stress is a means of keeping the core stabilized.
    And thanks, Howard, for your encouragement!

  7. No problem Julie.That particular breathing technique described by Colgan really helps with heavy weights.Since I started using that I am not as tired after the workout and feel more in contol through out the movement.Some thing else he mentions when lifting heavy is before you lift is to take 3 deep belly breaths to help oxygenate and center yourself,then follow through with the breathing technique described above.

  8. Just be careful with over-oxygenating before heavy lifting. You can make yourself pass out and that could be extremely dangerous. I saw a guy do that once and it was scary! Fortunately he had spotters to help him out.

  9. Wow thanks for the warning!I know to look out for that now.I knew it was dangerous not to breath ,but didn't think about over-oxygenating.