Healthy Pittsfield: Self-care can be as easy as breathing

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What is more important — food or air? Exhale all of the air from your lungs and hold the out breath. In about 10 seconds, the answer will become obvious. Thoughts of eating, working, debt and relationships will all disappear as your nervous system screams out its answer — air!

If air is so important, why don't you ever pay attention to your breathing? After all, you inhale between 15,000 and 25,000 times a day. There are plenty of opportunities to notice.

Paying attention to your breathing has been shown to improve your health, calm your mind, lower your blood pressure, focus at work, improve your relationships and more. Arguably, paying attention to your breath, is the greatest self-care system known to mankind — and it is free!

The science behind breathing and health is not complicated. The body and mind are nourished by oxygen. Every inhale equals nourishment. Every exhale cleanses the toxins and wastes from your body. In other words, breathing nourishes and cleans you.

There is a catch. If you do not pay attention to your breathing, you will start to short change yourself. Under stress and anxiety, you will begin to breathe less air and sometimes hold your breath unconsciously. Simply put, you will start to starve yourself of nourishment and accumulate toxins in your body.

What happens when you are under-nourished and poisoned? The initial symptoms usually are imbalance, anxiety, loss of vitality, tiredness, depression and eventually illness.

If this is all true, then why don't you pay attention to your breathing? When I ask, most people's answers vary — too busy, too tired, can't be bothered. Sound familiar? Ironically these are the very symptoms of lack of air.

When many people eventually are forced to take more self-care the doctor will suggest exercise, giving up smoking and eating better food. These are all wonderful suggestions, but can seem overwhelming changes to make.

How about starting simply? Change the way you breathe. After all, it is free and you have to breathe anyway. I suggest you start with the 10-day challenge:

• At least once a day, stop and notice how your breathing is. Do not judge it as good or bad. Just notice.

• Gently close your mouth and start inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Closing your eyes may help you pay closer attention. This immediately can start a calming process called the relaxation response.

• For the next 10 breaths, make each breath bigger than the one before. To do that, let your belly relax and expand as you inhale. As you exhale, engage your abdominal muscles and pull the navel back toward your spine. This empties your lungs more efficiently, cleaning up toxins in your system. By the end, you should feel air coming into your lower lungs (as the belly expands), your mid lungs (the rib cage expands) and the upper lungs (your collar bones rise). It is common to notice yawning and sighing when you start to give yourself extra nourishment. If you feel light-headed or anxious, go back to your normal breathing.

• Repeat for the next 10 days and notice any changes.

Lawrence Carroll is a Peak Performance life coach and a Healthy Pittsfield Partner. He was nominated for the Distinctive Educator of the Berkshires. He works with individuals and schools in the Berkshires, as well as teaches yoga.

This column appears in the Lifestyles section the second Sunday of each month. The Healthy Pittsfield Partnership is coordinated by the Pittsfield Health Department and Board of Health. Partners include community residents, business leaders, health and human service professionals, city officials and health advocates. The partnership is committed to community based initiatives that will improve the health and quality of life of Pittsfield's residents and workforce. For more information, visit www.cityofpittsfield.org/cityhall/healthand inspections/healthypittsfield.


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