The Simple Way to Breathe Correctly
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.”
Thích Nhất Hạnh
I’ve been doing quite a bit of self reflection over the past few months, seeing which areas of my everyday life that I can improve to take me closer to lasting health.
I’ve experimented with my diet. I’ve adapted my training methods. I’ve examined my posture. But one aspect I’ve really taken a closer look at is breathing properly.
Breathing is something we all have to do to survive, and most of us don’t give it a second thought. I know I didn’t. But after a few months of further reading and practice, things have changed.
A SHORT EXPERIMENT
If you’re a human being sat reading this article, I’m going to assume that you’ve been breathing for quite some time. Your technique has been sufficient to get enough oxygen into your lungs, and to remove enough carbon dioxide to keep you going.
So everything is OK right? Not so fast…
I’m gonna ask you to perform a really quick exercise. It will only take a few seconds, so put your running shoes down and relax…
Place your right hand on your belly, and your left hand on your chest. Take a really deep breath through your nose, or mouth, whatever feels the most comfortable.
In most cases, the left hand will move more than the right, meaning the chest expands more than the belly. This is usually accompanied by a lift in the shoulders and the traps too.
Breathing this way is often termed ‘chest breathing’ or ‘shallow breathing’, and is common amongst us modern human. That goes for everyday normal breathing too, not just when we try to take deep breaths.
Although this way may be sufficient to fulfil our physiological requirements and for us to carry on living, it could be so much better!
The reality is, the majority of people breathe well enough to survive, but few breathe well enough to thrive.
Don’t forget to breath out before you carry on reading by the way…
TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY
Believe it or not, we were born with the ability to breath properly!
Lets prove it. If there’s a baby lying around in the vicinity, stop for a moment and observe their breathing pattern. Notice they take full, deep breaths through the nose. Their belly lifts up as they inhale, and sinks down as they exhale. This type of breathing is often called ‘belly breathing’ or ‘diaphragmatic breathing’.
It’s much more effective at exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide than our usual routine.
When we carry out ‘chest breathing’ we only use the top part of our lungs, ignoring the many blood vessels deeper down. The bottom of the lungs are left holding stagnant air, and breathing shallowly acts only to pile air on top of it. Unfortunately a lifetime of prolonged stress and poor habits has caused many people to stray from their natural behaviour.
Us modern humans are faced with a huge number of stressors, and a key reaction during the human stress response is an increased rate of shallow breathing. This may be great to help us to prepare for a potential fight or flight situation, but when we’re faced with prolonged stress from traffic jams, deadlines and presentations – the same stress response still occurs.
If we’re not careful we can get stuck in this stressed state, which can leave us with constant shallow breathing. The breathing itself can then cause symptoms of chronic stress, leading to more shallow breathing… It’s a vicious circle, that is well worth breaking out of.
Unsurprisingly, our posture can also have a big impact on our breathing. The daily routine for many people includes driving to the workplace, where they sit hunched over a computer for 8-10 hours. This is then followed by a drive home, and upon arrival they take a seat in front of the TV or laptop. Repeat indefinitely.
This type of behaviour is a form of physical stress. It leaves people with shrugged shoulders and rounded backs; making it much more difficult to execute the proper breathing technique. Well take a closer look at posture in the next few weeks, it really is fascinating.
HOW TO BREATHE CORRECTLY
When we were toddlers we had no worries, we moved and breathed the way our bodies were designed to, but somewhere down the line we forgot. But there is still hope! Lets take a look at how we used to do it.
The key muscle involved with correct ‘belly breathing‘ is the diaphragm, a sheet like muscle located at the bottom of the ribcage. It’s also involved somewhat in shallow breathing, but not to the same extent.
When activated properly during belly breathing, the diaphragm acts to increase the volume of the thoracic cavity and draw air down into the lungs, by lowering down. The diaphragm is assisted by the intercostal muscles of the ribcage, along with the pec-minor, scalenes, lats, and a few other muscles in the trunk and neck. The relaxation of the diaphragm causes expiration, and this can be assisted by contracting the abdominal muscles.
For the most part, breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It happens without us having to worry about it. We take in air just as easily as we take in sounds or smells. However, breathing is a function that we can also control consciously.
In Buddhism this ‘mindfulness of breath’ is called Anapanasati, and forms the basis of many types of meditation. You can carry out a breathing exercise and feel ‘I am breathing’, just as much as you can walk and feel ‘I am walking’.
If you were to perform ‘belly breathing’ and repeat the test you tried earlier, on inhalation your right hand on your belly would rise, and your left hand on your chest would remain relatively still.
You can practice this technique at any time, standing or sitting, but many people find it easier to start lying on their back. Focus on letting the belly expand on the inhale, and contract on the exhale. Perhaps start with just 10 deep breaths every morning uon waking. This can also act as a form of meditation!
The diaphragm is simply a muscle, and with patience you can train it to perform the way it should, just like you can train the rest of your muscle. However, always be careful not to force the breath. The most powerful breathing is worked more by gravity than by muscular power.
Let yourself breath properly rather than trying to force yourself to breath properly.
Becoming aware of your breathing is a big step towards increasing your health. Replacing short shallow breathing with deep belly breathing maximizes the efficiency of the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, which is great if you’re involved in sports or any form of movement. As well as reducing your heart rate and stabilising your blood pressure, it has the capability to lower stress levels and help you remain in a calm, present, mindful state.
So get started, go slow, and reap the benefits!
Go check out these if you’re interested in finding out more about breathing properly.
- Nanamoli, B. (1964). Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapanasati).
- Dragon and Tiger Medical Qigong by Bruce Frantzis
- Harvard Health Publication on Breathing Correctly
- Great article on Marks Daily Apple about correct breathing.
Thanks for reading!
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