Breathing is one of the most basic things we do, and if we’re alive we’re doing it! In fact we do it 25,900 times each day on average! Funny, then, how so many of us nowadays breathe incorrectly and do it in a way that actually harms our health and well-being. If it’s so basic and essential to life, then shouldn’t the body already know how to do it correctly?
It’s tough for the body to function harmoniously as we try to cope with the countless distractions pulling our minds all over the place, crazy schedules pushing us to move faster and faster, and seemingly too many people to please! The mind has a limited amount of attention to dole out. If too much attention is given externally to things like our phones, what we’ll eat for dinner, that guy that just cut us off, getting home in time to watch our favorite show, or what people think of our outfit, then naturally there’s less attention given internally to our bodies. Yes, our bodies need attention too!
By simply slowing down and focusing on our breath for only a few minutes, changes occur both physiologically and psychologically. Breathing correctly and consciously is associated with things such as relaxation, confidence, low blood pressure, being present and self-aware, better sleep, faster recovery from exercise, efficient metabolism, etc. Not to mention it’s how we get oxygen! Oxygen is the single most important nutrient to human physiology. Without any for just a few minutes our bodies start to panic. A few more minutes and we may have permanent brain damage. A few more minutes and that’s it! Effectively pumping this nutrient through our bodies is extremely important.
Under stress or pressure the natural tendency is to take shallow breaths into the chest. Chest breathing, aside from being unproductive, utilizes small, accessory muscles around the shoulders and neck that aren’t built to accommodate 25,900 breathes a day! These muscles become tight and stiff from overuse, limiting mobility in the upper body and creating painful knots in the neck and back. This hyper muscle activity above the collarbones can crowd the nerves that travel from the neck to the arms causing sweaty hands, tingling fingers, headaches, digestive problems, etc. Maybe we stretch, get massages, take anti-inflammatory medicine, or try other remedies to fix the problem, but if we continue breathing the same way things will quickly revert back.
Ok so, how do I breathe correctly?? Great question, let’s talk about how to breathe in a way that improves our lives.
You can practice deep breathing in any position. Lying on your back is the easiest. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a big, deep breath in through your nose. Which hand moved first? Which hand moved the most? If it was the belly hand, then you’re off to a good start! If your chest hand moved first and most, then you’re not utilizing your diaphragm muscle to breathe. We’ll go into depth about the diaphragm, but for now let’s keep the focus on the belly. Take another deep breath through your nose, and this time try to move your belly hand first. Fill up your belly with the first 2/3 of your breath, and roll the last 1/3 up into your chest. Breath out slowly and easily. Repeat for just a few minutes or twenty minutes. Do what feels right.
That’s about all there is to it! It might feel a little strange at first, and that’s alright. You may feel a little pain in your abdomen or chest, or a little lightheaded. This is normal. You’re moving things around in your body that haven’t been disturbed for a while! And like anything new it takes some practice to get better. Keep practicing consistently and it will feel more and more comfortable. After some time you will be able to start breathing as you move, when you’re stressed, when you’re tired, or as you exercise!
Ok great! So, that’s an overview of deep breathing. Let’s get into more detail now, and really find out what’s going on inside our bodies as we breathe.
The primary muscle our bodies are meant to use for inhalation is the diaphragm. It’s a flat muscle that separates the organs in the ribcage (lungs and heart) from the organs in the abdomen below (liver, stomach, intestines, kidneys, etc.). Figure 1 shows the diaphragm at rest, after a full exhalation. It’s shaped like a parachute when it’s relaxed.
When we inhale we breathe air into our body cavity. Naturally this air needs room in order to enter. That’s where the diaphragm comes in! The diaphragm contracts by flattening as we inhale, giving the lungs space to fill up with air. Figure 2 displays this phenomenon very well.
The brown rubber is the diaphragm, the two pink balloons are the lungs, the bottle is the body cavity, and the nozzle at the top is the nose. The brown rubber pulls air into the pink balloons when it is stretched down. This is the same action that takes place when the diaphragm is contracted and flattens from its resting parachute-like position. As the lungs fill up with air the heart stretches down as well and has space to pump more blood through the body!
That’s what happens above the diaphragm. Much is happening simultaneously to the internal organs below the diaphragm. If more space is being made above, then there is less space down below! All the organs and glands down there get compressed when the diaphragm contracts during a nice big breath. The pressure pushes fluids out of the organs and glands; fluids like
blood and hormones. They are pumped throughout the body delivering important nutrients to areas that are in need. Then we exhale and the diaphragm relaxes, space resumes the lower half,
and fresh blood is pumped back into those glands and organs. The cycle continues, and everything is moving and flowing. No time for things to build up from being stagnant and lethargic.
Breathing is the most important pumping system in our bodies!
While it’s important for everybody to breath well, it’s especially important for children to learn early on so they develop a solid breathing pattern. The sooner someone can learn a technique the stronger it will be later in life. Practice with your kids!