The Best Way to Breathe

Jennifer was suffering chronic headaches triggered by a stressful relationship with a boyfriend who was seeing another woman. She went to a chiropractor and a physician; she had acupuncture. Nothing helped. Then she met Gene Dillman, director of the Breath Awareness Center in Lambertville, N.J., who uses breathing as a tool to unlock the emotional pain that causes physical ailments. During her sessions with Dillman, Jennifer did breathing exercises and talked about aspects of the relationship that troubled her.

Gradually the headaches stopped, and Jennifer was able to break off the relationship, something she had tried to do in the past. Jennifer found that good breathing was critical for good health. She's not alone.


An increasing number of healthcare providers and instructors of yoga and other movement techniques are emphasizing the benefits of proper breathing, which experts say reduces the effects of stress, a leading cause of physical woes. Slow, deep breathing can lower blood pressure, end heart irregularities, improve poor digestion and decrease anxiety.

The focus on good breathing, which is also used in mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation, is part of the growing movement of alternative medicine. James Gordon, chair of the new White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, explores breathing and other mind-body techniques in his book, "Manifesto for a New Medicine: Your Guide to Healing Partnerships and the Wise Use of Alternative Therapies."

Gordon, director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington D.C., has taught breathing techniques to cancer patients, children with attention deficit disorder and war refugees in Kosovo. His research over 30 years shows that slow, deep breathing slows down the heart rate, relaxes muscles and calms the mind.

Everyone knows instinctively how to breathe but few of us do it properly. We come into the world as good breathers; babies inhale and exhale from their abdomens. Breathing deeply, which allows the abdomen to expand, brings into the lungs the amount of oxygen needed to nourish all the cells in the body.

A Better Way to Breathe

But over time, stress causes our muscles to tighten up and our respiration rate to quicken. Most of us become thoracic breathers, using only the middle and upper parts of the lungs. The path to better breathing is just a breath away. Nancy Harazduk of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine recommends a simple technique to produce more efficient breathing.


The Best Way to Breathe (<i>cont'd</i>)

Lie down on the floor, and place a book on your abdomen. Breathe deeply, allowing your abdomen to expand. Watch the book move up and down. Now sit up, and try the same thing without the book. Harazduk, who runs a program that teaches patients coping skills through the use of meditation, proper breathing and other techniques, suggests that everyone take a break several times a day and take three deep abdominal breaths.

"Proper breathing has profound effects on our health," said dancer and teacher Michelle Ava whose Ava Technique includes massage, movement and meditation. "Over 70 percent of waste by-products are eliminated through our breathing and our skin. When our blood is heavily oxygenated it becomes very difficult for virus and bacteria to grow."


At a studio near the National Zoo in Northwest Washington D.C., Ava helps her clients figure out where they hold the tension in their body, and through breathing exercises, yoga and massage therapy, how to get rid of it.

Dillman, 50, has incorporated breath work into his practice of rebirthing, a process that enables a person to trace emotional upset to an earlier trauma, possibly at birth. In the late 70s, Dillman had serious gastrointestinal problems. He lost weight and had trouble digesting food.

After searching, he says, for a way "to heal" himself, Dillman came to understand how the mind can effect the body. Eventually he was cured with the help of herbs, dietary supplements and rebirthing.

"Breathing is key," said Dillman. "All emotions are stored in the body. Breathing is a catalyst. The breath work helps to bring up and release emotional traumas."