Breathing is an Art

A Bout de Souffle? Some tips if you're feeling breathless.

In the end, all movements depend on proper breathing, the one movement we do more than any other (22,000 times a day). It takes some calories to move 15 kilos of air each day, as we do. Breathlessness will stop you in your tracks, and prevent the body’s efficient burning of fuel. But also: steady breathing with awareness promotes a balanced appreciative relationship to food. You may consider yourself an accomplished breather, but it’s worth your while to learn how to do it better.

That’s what I told a group of women as I opened a three-day seminar in San Francisco about ten years ago. I showed them a few techniques I learned from an instructor in Paris. I didn’t care if they never tried them again. The point is that no one should go through life without being made to think at least once about the deep significance of breathing. And if you continue thinking about it, you can harness the most discreet and portable mechanism we have for re-establishing the mind-body link, which is so terribly eroded by our fast paced lives.

Conscious breathing is the easiest form of mediation, and the most basic part of yoga, which I highly recommend if you have the inclination to take classes in anything. This type of breathing disconnects eating from our stress-response equipment, a major cause of overeating and binging. It also enhances our overall energy by releasing energy in every cell of the body. Breathing is the driving process of metabolism.

I practice breathing movements in the subway (OK, not too deeply there), on the plane, lying in bed, sitting at my desk but also as part of my home routine—wherever I have to breathe anyway. Part of the appeal is being in the moment. Breathing is the ultimate present-moment stimulation. Think about doing it, and you don’t think of the past or the future. You are in the “here and now.” That’s the ultimate zone diet.

Try these basics:

Step 1: Rhythm and Awareness
Close your eyes. Place one hand on your belly and notice your breathing. Feel your hand rise slightly with each new breath in. Feel it fall with each breath out. Focus on this motion of rising and falling for a dozen breaths.

Step 2: Countdown to Sleep

Start with the step 1 movement until you are comfortable with the pace. As you breathe in, inwardly say twelve, then breathe out. With the next breath say eleven, breathe out. Continue until you reach zero. Take your time. Slow is good. Repeat this for a couple of minutes…or until you fall asleep.

Step 3: Slowdown to Sleep
Now when you breathe in count to 6 to yourself and when you breathe out count to 9. While you do it, clear your mind of any thoughts and concentrate totally on your breathing. It only takes a few repetitions or deep breaths until you feel relaxed and eventually you will fall asleep.

Step 4: Wave Breathing

Digestion depends on the autonomic system, which explains the influence our emotions have on our gastric function. Therefore it is essential to breathe well in order to eat more slowly and to give the brain the necessary time to register satiety. The wave is best practiced when you are, or think you are, hungry and/or before meals.

Standing, sitting or lying flat on your back, put one hand on your belly and the other above it mid-chest, wrist below the breasts. Breathe in, expand chest while pushing a bit on the abdomen. Breathe out, expand abdomen while exercising a slight pressure on the chest. Repeat 24 times then go back to your normal breathing before going back to whatever you were doing.

Step 5: Alternate Nostril Breathing

A little odd, but bear with me—French is a very nasal language. Standing or sitting, breathe out through both nostrils. Next close your right nostril with your right thumb. Breathe in on left side. Close your left nostril with right index finger. (Both nostrils are now pinched closed.) Hold breath in. Release thumb and exhale out on right nostril, breathe in again through right nostril. Hold and again close nostril with right thumb. Release index finger and breathe out left side. This completes one set. Repeat six times. Count to six for each holding, breathing in, breathing out.

Step 6: Yawning
I actually learned this one when I first moved to New York and was studying modern dance as a hobby. I was no great dancer but I was a star at yawning and can do it on cue without any difficulty. Before that class, I never knew it relieves stress, calms you down and even puts you to sleep if repeated, which sometimes happened at the end of the class as we lay on our backs practicing the art of yawning. While you yawn, you actually allow in a greater amount of oxygen than normal in your lungs, which revitalizes blood flow. Even the sound a good yawn produces helps reduce tension. To make yourself yawn, you have to breathe in deeply and stretch your mouth open as wide as possible. After two or three tries, the natural yawning response is triggered and can go on indefinitely.