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Learning to breathe

It's called 7-11. I don't mean the mini-market where you get a hot dog-with-relish and a super-sized soda. This is a breathing technique. Most of us could use instruction on how to breathe more effectively.

My daughter introduced me to the 7-11 approach, but it's also part of the Stanford University chronic disease self-management program and described in the book "Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions." (By the way, "Living Well" classes are available throughout the Valley; call 864-9611 for more information.)

My daughter, Jenna, uses this particular breathing approach to get calm and ready before giving a presentation or to relax and de-stress at the end of a long work day. It has many benefits. The fact is, most of us don't get enough oxygen, not nearly enough — we typically use less than 20 percent of our available lung capacity.

Let's try it right now, Jen's version first. Breathe in deeply through your nose to the count of seven. Good. Now exhale through your mouth to the count of 11. Do that three times.

Don't you feel better already? Breathing is such a life-dependent activity, as well as a skill that can be better learned. When we do it right, we quickly recognize we've been doing it wrong. According to Dr. Kate Lorig, who developed the "Living Well" approach, "Breathing is not something every adult does well naturally."

Think of it in terms of "getting the old air out of your lungs so the new air can come in and do its good work," she says.

Fully emptying our lungs of stale air and filling up with fresh air allows us to keep our breathing apparatus conditioned so we can take advantage of all available lung capacity.

The Stanford folks teach a more intense version of the 7-11 called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. For some of us, it takes a little practice. Place one hand on your stomach (at the base of your breastbone) and the other hand on your upper chest. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand outward. The hand on your tummy should move upward and the hand on your chest should not move — well, maybe just slightly. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips as if you were blowing across a flute or into a whistle. Good. Sometimes people tell me doing the entire process (inhaling slowly, and then exhaling even more slowly) makes them think of that old-fashioned phrase, "Smell the rose, blow out the candle."

So here I am sitting in a chair in our living room practicing my belly breathing. My husband ambles by and asks, "What are you doing?" I reply (at the end of a breathing cycle), "I'm writing my column."(Deep inhale) "What's it on?" (Exhale slowly.) "Breathing."

"Are you for it or against it?

I consider giving him one of those wife-enduring-husband looks, but I'm too relaxed and self-satisfied to bother. Deep breath, here we go again. Waiting to exhale. Good.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.