Different techniques can help you face different challenges.
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In only 10 minutes a day, you can boost energy, melt away tension, even relieve stubborn health problems, just by breathing the right way.
When heart specialist Dr. John M. Kennedy of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Kennedy said.
It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows:
Rev up • If you're feeling sluggish, try a few rounds of "bellows," a type of rapid belly breathing. Regular practice of bellows can also lead to a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure.
In a recent study, 50 beginners slowed their resting heart rates 13 beats per minute and lowered their systolic blood pressure four points within three months of doing just three rounds of bellows each day. This is nearly the same payoff you'd get from regular exercise or even from taking medication. (If your pressure is already high, however, don't practice bellows, cautions the study's author, Dr. Shashikala Veerabhadrappa.)
Calm yourself • You can't always avoid stressful situations that trigger the fight-or-flight response - being stuck in traffic, for example. But you can use your breathing to create the opposite effect the so-called rest-and-digest response to ease the impact stress can have on your heart.
In a study at San Francisco State University, 20 participants tried two kinds of breathing paced and alternate-nostrils at a slow and steady five breaths per minute. Both techniques worked. When tested after half an hour, the study subjects had lower heart rates and showed other signs their fight-or-flight response had been turned off (although the positive impact began to kick in at 10 minutes). If five breaths per minute seems too slow, a faster pace works well, too, says study leader Matthew Lee. "But aim for 10 or fewer breaths per minute," he advises.
Beyond reducing the physical impact of stress, paced breathing can make you feel less jangled. In one session at the Mayo Clinic, a group of 17 women learned a routine of alternating a few minutes of paced breathing with several minutes of mediation. After they practiced the technique for a total of 15 minutes once or twice a day for four weeks, their stress scores dropped by about a third.
Medical treatments and breathing • At the University of California, San Francisco, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy learned four breathing exercises, which they then practiced twice a day for 10 minutes to 15 minutes. The simple techniques were observing your natural breath, deep inhales with extended exhales, gentle inhales followed by a brief pause, and forceful exhales and alternate-nostril breathing during therapy. These patients were less anxious, slept better and had fewer chemo symptoms than a control group. The more time they spent focusing on breathing, the greater their relief. "A yoga teacher can help you learn the techniques and individualize them to your condition," said oncologist Anand Dhruva,