Breathing has indeed become a fashionable word these days. You hear it over the airwaves and read it in all sorts of publications. “Take a deep breath” is the most frequently given advice handed out by people of all levels of society–parents, teachers, doctors, therapists, pastors, authors, spouses, your best friend, or anyone with a well-meaning intention to help you out of some desperate physical or mental dilemma or even just to help you to get over a simple frustration such as lining up for a theater ticket.

Great advice! But how many people really know how to take an honest-to-goodness deep breath that will really help?

Try taking a deep breath now. Ask yourself whether you are finding it helpful and satisfying. Do you find the air you are inhaling flows in freely and deeply? Do you like the way you are breathing, or is it a struggle? Are you taking breaths that are energizing and stabilizing? Are you in control of your breathing?

Watch a baby sleeping on its back. The stomach rises on inhalation and subsides on exhalation. Somehow we lose this innate ability as we go through life. Our loss can come about for many reasons. We may imitate our parents, teachers, best friends, or other loved ones who may be shallow breathers. Social influences, such as peer pressure to wear tight clothing, can also cause us to compromise the way we breathe. When we are scared or sad or angry, we tend to hold our breath, and when we are in physical pain, we tend to restrain our breathing. All these traumatic experiences can pile up, and we end up as habitual shallow breathers.

Breathing is, after all, a physical act. Once shallow breathing and/or other distorted ways of breathing become bad habits, they become physical problems, and we will need to deal with these problems in a physical way. No amount of talking or thinking or theorizing about them will do much good.

To undo or reverse a physical bad habit, you need to retrain your muscles and nervous reflexes by practicing well-planned, appropriate, and coordinated physical, mental, and breathing exercises, in a progressive manner, starting from the easy exercises to the more advanced and onward. Allow your muscles and reflexes to develop gradually, and eventually your body will obey your mind and allow you to breathe correctly. Simply being advised to improve the way you breathe, to use your will power, and to adjust your psychological condition and attitude will not reverse your incorrect breathing habit.

When I was a child in China, a vegetable vendor from the village frequented our neighborhood. She always brought along her little daughter, who walked with a limp just as her mother did. Everyone assumed that they had been in some accident together. One day, my mother asked the young vendor how they had been hurt. She was surprised to find that the vendor had been run over by a run-away horse cart as a child and one of her feet had been crushed. My mother asked how her little daughter had been hurt. Mother was shocked to learn that the little girl had never been injured but just imitated her mother’s way of walking, which the villagers thought was so cute.

My mother took the little girl to a missionary doctor who was a close friend of my father. The doctor said that since the seven-year-old girl had been walking that way since she was a toddler, she would need intense physical therapy and muscle-manipulating treatment to correct her badly developed bones, muscles, tendons, and reflexes. With some hard work, she might overcome her ingrained habit of walking badly.

We can easily recognize a person with a limp. But we seldom notice someone who has a bad breathing habit, such as breathing shallowly, unless that person develops a raspy voice, huffs and puffs with each breath, or suffers more serious physical or mental difficulties. Even then, unfortunately, most people may not believe that incorrect breathing can be the culprit. Breathing, after all, is just a natural instinct that cannot be blamed for any ills. Right? Wrong!

I have been a classical singer and a voice teacher for more than thirty years. Training the breathing instruments has been my life’s work. I am also a practitioner of Chi Kung (Qigong). Chi Kung is an ancient Chinese discipline of using the breath in coordination with movements and meditation to generate chi (energy) for personal power and healing. I have compared, extracted, and compiled techniques from both East and West to create a direct, concise way of teaching the art of breathing.

To breathe correctly, first you must grasp the concept that the lungs are relaxed containers for air and that you must let the stomach do the pumping. Squeeze in your stomach and air goes out; expand your stomach (actually the entire lower circumference, which includes the lower abdomen, the lower back, and the lower sides) and air is being drawn in. This practice is called abdominal deep breathing. The inhaled air does not actually enter the abdomen, but the deep breath gives that mental impression and sensation.

To understand the breathing instrument, we need to know that the diaphragm is the sheet of muscle that separates the lungs from the stomach. When you squeeze in your abdomen (stomach), your diaphragm muscle moves upward, pushing air out of your lungs. When the stomach expands, the diaphragm lowers, allowing the lungs, like an accordion being held lengthwise, to elongate and draw in air. If you do the opposite–that is, you pull in your stomach as you inhale–you cause your diaphragm to push upward, resisting the inflow of air. In other words, you are fighting against every breath you take.

Before the development of medical science, and before charts of the human anatomy had been drawn, people may have assumed that the entire torso fills with air when we breathe in. So they just naturally opened up and breathed in deeply. That was wonderful! It was actually the correct way to breathe.

Because anatomy charts show us and we are taught that our lungs are for breathing, we tend to allocate all the functions of breathing to the lungs. Instead of letting the lungs function as a set of relaxed containers for air, we expect them to pump for air as well. Since the lungs cannot handle the pumping, we borrow strength from the neighboring muscles, thus tensing the muscles of our shoulders, neck, jaw, and chest, to name a few. No wonder we develop tension, aches, and pains in those areas.

Remember that the natural pump for breathing is the abdomen. To oversimplify, think of your lower abdomen as a balloon. Squeeze it and the diaphragm muscle moves upward, causing the lungs to push out air. When you release the balloon, the diaphragm muscle lowers, and air is being drawn into your lungs.

Some of you may be asking, “Why make such a big fuss about breathing? Just breathe, and you will be fine.” The American Lung Association has this great slogan: “When You Can’t Breathe, Nothing Else Matters.” The day may come when you’ll wish you had taken the effort and time to understand and learn the skill to control your breathing. The art of breathing may just save your life.

Author's Bio: 

Nancy Zi is the author of The Art of Breathing—book, video, and DVD. Her website is

Additional Resources on Breathing can be found at:

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Nancy Zi, Official Guide to Breathing