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Baby Steps To Better Breathing

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Baby Steps To Better Breathing

Your Health

Baby Steps To Better Breathing

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene, in for Steve Inskeep.

In Your Health today, we'll hear about lung disease among people who've never smoked. But first, learning - well, relearning - how to breathe like a sleeping baby. Experts say good breathing technique could be a natural stress reliever. But as one student of music and breath has learned, old habits can die hard.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: if you've ever been in your car when suddenly the person in front of you slams on the brakes…

(Soundbite of tires screeching)

AUBREY: …the typical reaction is…

(Soundbite of gasping)

Mr. EDWARD BILANCHONE (Registered Massage Therapist; Instructor, Alexander Technique): This response…

(Soundbite of gasping)

Mr. BILANCHONE: …it's a natural response and it's a good response. It helps us survive.

AUBREY: Ed Bilanchone is a longtime instructor of breathing and movement. He teaches musicians using a method called the Alexander Technique. He explains a quick gasp brings a rush of oxygen in, which helps to heighten our senses and respond quickly.

But the trouble comes when chronic stress sets in. Then, Bilanchone says, a lot of interactions start to feel like near-collisions.

Mr. BILANCHONE: So, that we're…

(Soundbite of gasping)

Mr. BILANCHONE: …you know, we're almost always doing this for no good reason. It becomes a part of us and we never sort of release out of it completely, because we've been doing it for so long and so many times.

AUBREY: Bilanchone says the result for many of us is the bad habit of taking really shallow breaths or even holding the breath at moments. He says this interferes with the natural rhythm that you see when you watch a sleeping baby.

Mr. BILANCHONE: Babies breathe easily, softly without awareness of their breath. And so that when the diaphragm moves, the backs move beautifully and their bellies move and they're just - they're not thinking about it. It's just happening.

AUBREY: The diaphragm is the large, dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest from the abdominal region. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and flattens downward, sort of nudging the belly out of the way. So, when you see the belly moving up and down gracefully during relaxed breathing, it's a sign that the diaphragm is fully contracting and expanding.

Alexandra Phillips is keenly aware of all this anatomy. She's an opera singer, and breath is critical to her performance. But she says a few years ago she was getting all tangled up, thinking about it too much.

Ms. ALEXANDRA PHILLIPS (Opera Singer): If I'm telling myself, okay…

(Soundbite of gasping)

Ms. PHILLIPS: …be tall, you know, stand up straight, take a deep breath, what it translates to me is tension.

AUBREY: Phillips says with the anxiety of performing, she was almost trying too hard. She sensed a lot of constriction in her throat, which inhibited her breath.

Ms. PHILLIPS: So much of what my teachers were telling me was let go, let go, let go, and that's a very broad thing to say and it was so frustrating. I'm like, well, what the heck does that mean? You know, like, oh, great, thanks.

AUBREY: In trying to understand in a more technical way what it meant to let go, she connected with teacher Ed Bilanchone for lessons.

Ms. PHILLIPS: When I first came to Ed several years ago, I remember I was like…

(Soundbite of gasping)

Ms. PHILLIPS: …you know, way pulled up and…

Mr. BILANCHONE: Arched in the back.

Ms. PHILLIPS: …arched in the back, like everything.

AUBREY: There was a lot of chest heaving and her breath was far from natural.

Ms. PHILLIPS: It was very cut off from my breath and core.

AUBREY: She winces, and says the sound is sort of thin and reedy. But as she and Bilanchone have worked on subtle posture changes to lengthen her spine and relax her breathing, there's been a gradual change. During a recent lesson, Bilanchone directs her posture by placing his hand on her spine.

Mr. BILANCHONE: I like the space that you're creating in your torso, and I want you to think here, okay? Don't forget about that.

AUBREY: He's trying to heighten her awareness of this new posture.

Mr. BILANCHONE: Okay? Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing in foreign language)

AUBREY: Bilanchone says her sound is becoming much richer and she's performing a lot of solos these days.

Mr. BILANCHONE: Brava, brava.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILANCHONE: Very nice.

Ms. PHILLIPS: (Unintelligible)

Mr. BILANCHONE: Yeah, yeah.

AUBREY: What he's actually taught her here is how humans are supposed to breathe.

Mr. BILANCHONE: When your spine is lengthened the muscles that act on the diaphragm are at their optimum resting length and they have more potential for speed, strength and power.

AUBREY: Alexandra Phillips says the bonus is that she feels more relaxed too, something that deep breathing can do for all of us.

Alice Domar teaches diaphragmatic breathing in Waltham, Massachusetts. She explains when we fill our lungs fully, it prompts a bunch of good changes in the body.

Dr. ALICE DOMAR (Executive Director, Domar Center for Mind/Body Health): We get far more efficient oxygen exchange, which means that our heart doesn't have to work so hard and our blood pressure and heart rate come down.

AUBREY: At least temporarily - the struggle is to keep it down amidst our hectic lives.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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