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How to Make Proper Breathing a Healthy Habit for 2014

 Sheryl Dluginski says breathing can have a calming effect on the body's stress systems.
Sheryl Dluginski says breathing can have a calming effect on the body's stress systems.
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Valentyn Volkov / Shutterstock

NEW YORK — Although we are usually oblivious to it, our breath fuels every muscular contraction and bodily process.

In the introduction article of our 12 Healthy Habits for 2014 series, we explained how proper breathing is crucial to maintaining oxygen levels for energy production, balancing pH levels and eliminating wastes and toxins.

This month, we continue our exploration of 12 Healthy Habits for 2014 with a closer look at how to make the most of each breath, as well as how your breath can be a scientifically proven multi-purpose tool capable of altering your physical and mental states.

People breathe fully and correctly as infants, but over time, stress and poor posture can decrease breathing efficiency. Proper breathing involves the entire torso — the front, sides and back of the ribcage, as well as the abdominal cavity.

These two containers are connected by the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that forms the floor of the ribcage and the roof of the abdominal cavity. Slouching and chronic tension in the neck, shoulders and back can inhibit the space and flexibility in these areas, which limits our breathing capacity.

Some people are "chest-only breathers." Others breathe mostly in the front or back of the body, neglecting the sideways expansion or the ribs as they inhale. Emphasizing the right or left side of the body during breathing is another common poor breathing pattern. Many of us have our own unique combination of bad breathing habits.

Here's a simple two step process to assess your own breathing:

Lay one hand on your chest and the other on your belly as you breathe normally. Notice which area rises as you inhale and by how much. In a complete inhalation, your chest will rise first. followed by your belly as the diaphragm contracts, pushing down into the abdominal cavity. Next, lay your hands along the sides of your ribcage. Do your hands separate as they ride apart from each other on your inhalation?

To improve your breathing efficiency try the exercises below. After each exercise, notice if there are any changes to your mental, emotional or physical state. Rest for a few moments, breathing normally afterwards to avoid dizziness or lightheadedness that sometimes results from the fresh oxygen rush to your brain.

Three-Part Breath:

 Sheryl Dluginski of Generations Fitness says breathing can have a calming effect on the body's stress systems.
Sheryl Dluginski of Generations Fitness says breathing can have a calming effect on the body's stress systems.
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DNAInfo/Nigel Chiwaya

1) Take a slow, deep, complete breath in. Allow your chest to rise first, then expand your rib cage and finally let your belly rise.

2) As you exhale, release the air in the opposite order: First your belly lowers, then your rib cage contracts and finally your chest lowers.

3) Repeat for three to five breath cycles.

Three-Dimensional Breath:

1) Lie down or sit with your back against a wall or chair. Bring your attention to your breath.

2) For three rounds of breath, notice the expansion and contraction of your body to the front and back as you inhale and exhale. Feel a slight increase in pressure against your back as your body expands into the surface you are leaning against.

3) Let go of the front/back focus and draw your attention now to the sideways or lateral expansion of your ribs and torso for three breaths.

4) Let go of the lateral focus and now take three breaths noticing as the inhalation rises all the way up to your collarbone at the top and pushes the diaphragm down into your belly at the bottom.

5) Finish by taking three full breaths while focusing on all three dimensions simultaneously — front/back, left/right and up/down.

Alternate-Nostril Breathing:

To balance your energy, calm yourself and clear your mind, try alternate nostril breathing.

1) Gently close your right nostril by placing your right thumb against the side of your nose.

2) Inhale fully through your left nostril.

3) Hold the breath in momentarily while you close your left nostril with your right middle finger.

4) Lift your thumb and exhale through your right nostril. Pause.

5) Inhale through your right nostril. Close both nostrils and hold briefly.

6) Lift your middle finger and exhale through your left nostril. Pause.

7) Repeat this pattern beginning with an inhale through your left nostril (step 2).

8) Repeat for three to ten rounds of breath.

Pain-Release Breath:

This technique relieves tension, tightness and discomfort.

1) Bring your attention to an area of your body where you feel pain or are holding stress.

2) Visualize the area of discomfort by giving it a color, shape or texture.

3) Breathe in gently and fully, imagining that the breath is going directly to the chosen area. As you exhale, visualize the area of stress shrinking as the discomfort is carried away on the exhale.

3) Continue to take cooling, soothing breaths into the pain, watching the area of stress grow smaller and lighter with each exhalation.