Breathe Deep for Your Health

Fine-tune the fine art of deep breathing.

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Birds do it. Bees do it. We do it. We exhale and release into the atmo­sphere carbon dioxide, a chemical that promotes the growth of plants and prevents the sun’s radiant energy from returning to space. With our breath, we keep the planet from becoming a desert.

Apparently, one of our functions on this earth is to be gardeners—unwitting caretakers of a fragile ecosystem. We may be detrimental to the environment in other ways, but when we empty our lungs, we help make the grass grow greener.

For some reason, in our culture, there is a lot more emphasis on inhaling than on exhaling. While we associate taking in oxygen with doing something useful and good for ourselves, we expel carbon dioxide surreptitiously, almost as if we were taking out the garbage—in a rush, nose pinched, mouth open.

Always on the uptake, we derive almost no pleasure from relaxing our chests, clearing our airways, and sending forth some colorless CO2 into the blue yonder.

To breathe deeply and effortlessly, don’t wait to exhale. Think of breathing as giving, not taking. Just tell yourself that you are going to fill up your lungs in order to expel as much air as possible. Don’t scrimp. Dole out an ample supply of carbon dioxide. Do your share to promote photosynthesis. Picture in your mind one of your favorite trees and give its leaves a chance to produce some grade-A, top-quality oxygen.

Before you know it, your chest swells, your thoracic cage enlarges, and your shoulders relax. Precisely at the moment when you would expect your pulmonary chamber to be filled to capacity, the lobes in the back of your lungs open up like tiny parachutes. It is the most effortless high you’ve ex­perienced in a long time—but it’s nothing compared with the delicious sinking feeling that’s yours when you exhale. Few things in life are as ­satisfying as this long, gentle dive into serenity.

It’s wise never to urge yourself to breathe deeply: The involuntary mech­anism that regulates the swapping of chemicals between our blood and the atmosphere is triggered by a series of very complex neurological responses to internal and external stimuli. The central controls for respiration are in the brain, so changing the way we think about breathing is more effective than forcing the rib cage to expand.

It’s all in your head. Mental images will affect breathing patterns more than abdominal lifts, diaphragm contractions, nostril-intensive yoga exercises, or hits of oxygen taken at trendy ozone bars.

From The Art of Doing Nothing: Simple Ways to Make Time for Yourself by Véronique Vienne. Copyright © 1998, by Véronique Vienne. Reprinted with permission from Clarkson N. Potter Publishers. Véronique’s next book, The Art of Imperfection, will be available in bookstores nationwide in September.