Instant Energy: How to breathe properly

Breathing is one of those things everybody does but nobody notices.  There’s actually a word for that, it’s called an autonomic body function, as in one that is involuntary or unconscious.  Breathing is, however, one of the few body functions that you can consciously control.  You can stop your breathing and you can change it.  Try doing that with your heart rate.

Oxygen is the most vital element in our bodies.  It is essential to proper functioning of our glands, circulatory system, and brain.  We can survive without food and water for days.  We can’t survive without oxygen for more than a few minutes.  Your whole body needs oxygen to function, but your brain needs it the most.  Your brain makes up roughly 2% of your body mass, yet it consumes 20% of your body’s oxygen.

Your cells use blood sugar (glucose) and oxygen to create Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP), which is the fuel for cell function.  When your body needs more energy, it uses more oxygen.  This is why exercising causes you to breathe harder.  Think about it this way – if exercise causes you to breathe harder because you need more oxygen to create more energy, what happens when you increase oxygen levels when you’re not exercising?  You get more energy.

The simplest and most effective way to dramatically increase your energy levels is to practice conscious abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. This is the basis of many different practices such as Zen Yoga and Pranayama Yoga, Tai Chi, brick breakers, meditation, and Qi Gung.

To test if you’re doing this, put your left palm on your chest and your right palm on your stomach.  Take a deep breathe.  If your left hand rises more than your right hand you know you’re breathing with your chest.  Over 80% of the population breathes this way and it causes much of the oxygen exchange to occur at the top of the lung tissue towards the head.  People who use chest breathing breathe in more times per minute and get less oxygen than people who use abdominal breathing.  That means you spend more energy for less return.

Here are three simple breathing exercises to instantly energize you:

Abdominal / Diaphragmatic Breathing

Use this technique as a simple way to clear your head and feel more energetic.  Stand or sit up straight with your chin tucked in and your shoulder pulled back in a relaxed fashion (I’ll cover good posture in another post).  Focus on breathing into your stomach.  This doesn’t come naturally for most people.  Breathing in through the nose, try to consciously expand your abdomen as you breath in, pulling the air down, below your chest.  Your belly THEN your ribcage should expand – think outward then upward.  As you breathe in count to six, hold for 2 seconds, and then breathe out for 6 seconds.  Be sure to completely exhale through your nose, keeping your mouth closed the whole time.  You increase oxygen intake not by inhaling more air, but by more completely circulating it.  Full breath in, full breath out.

Do this 10 times, really focusing on the breathing.  Rest a little.  Repeat as many times as you want.

High Energy Breathing Technique

If you need a quick shot of energy, this technique will work well to give you a blast equivalent to a red bull energy drink.  Stand or sit up straight and, with your eyes closed, breathe in and out through your nose as quickly as you can.  Taking short shallow breaths, 1 – 2 times per second (think of a bicycle pump).  Again, remember that you are breathing into your abdomen.

As you start out, don’t do do this for more than 15 seconds at a time.  Resting 2 – 3 minutes between rounds, you can start by doing 3 sets of 15 seconds each.

If you start feeling light headed or cramping, then stop and assume normal abdominal breathing as described above.  Due to the high oxygen throughput, you may be decreasing carbon monoxide levels in your blood stream too rapidly, thereby causing hyperventilation.  Breathe normally for a few minutes and resume once you feel better.

Advanced Energy Breathing

This is an advanced technique that requires a little more concentration.  Similar to the deep abdominal breathing outlined above, but you’re holding the breath in for much longer.  Breath in for a four count, hold for a sixteen count, and then release for an eight count.  The important thing here is the ratio: 1-4-2.  Keep focused on breathing in very deeply, holding it, and then completely exhaling.  Do this 10 times.  In a few minutes you’ll feel completely alert and relaxed.