What could be more natural than breathing? You might be amazed to learn that most people don't know that breathing — an act that we do some 20,000 times each day — can deeply influence your health and happiness on many levels. Some proponents of deep breathing recognize the connection between stress and breathing as well. Do you know if you breathe right? Read more in our article to learn about proper techniques for breathing with our breathing exercises. Many of the breathing exercises are simple, so sit tall and breathe!

Breathing has been long considered essential for maintaining chi, the life-force energy of Eastern cultural traditions. Only more recently, however, have Americans begun to embrace the wisdom of taking a deep breath.

"Breathing incorrectly can produce tension, exhaustion and vocal strain, interfere with athletic activity and encourage aches and illnesses," says Nancy Zi, a Glendale, Calif.-based breathing expert and author of the book and video set, "The Art of Breathing." Breathe correctly, however, and you can "melt away tension and stress, improve energy or simply relax and unwind."

Dennis Lewis, who leads breathing awareness workshops and is the author of "The Tao of Natural Breathing," observes: "Most of us take our breathing for granted. The great Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that most of us breathe from our throats, and that real human beings breathe from their heels."

Here's what happens: Breathing oxygenates every cell of your body, from your brain to your vital organs. Without sufficient oxygen, your body becomes more susceptible to health problems. For example, in a study published in The Lancet, cardiac patients who took 12 to 14 shallow breaths per minute (six breaths per minute is considered optimal) were more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which "may impair skeletal muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance."

In contrast, deep breathing raises levels of blood oxygen, promoting health in many ways — from stimulating the digestive process to improving fitness and mental performance. Even alternative health icon Dr. Andrew Weil says: "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."

Are You a Shallow Breather?

Zi observes that most people are "shallow breathers" — they use only the narrow top portion of the lung surface for oxygen exchange. Our breath literally stops at the diaphragm — a band of tissue that Lewis calls our "spiritual muscle."

To find out if you're a shallow breather, try Zi's simple test: Put your palms against your lower abdomen and blow out all the air. Now, take a big breath. If your abdomen expands when you inhale and air seems to flow in deeply to the pit of your stomach, you're on the right track.

More typically, though, shallow breathers are likely to take a breath and pull in their stomach, which pushes the diaphragm up so the air has nowhere to go. What happens next is that the shoulders go up to make room. "All this effort for something, which should be a natural gift!" Zi exclaims.