As a way to quickly and effectively take back control over your body and mind, the breath has long been used as a way to calm even the most fevered of emotions. Yet most people don’t breathe very well; they over-breathe, chest-breathe or hold the breath when they should be filling their lungs with rejuvenating oxygen. Given that breathing is an automatic function of the body, this chronic lack of skill is a curiosity of the modern era.
The breath, it would seem, is often only focused on when compromised. In so many ways, breath and breathing are intrinsic to wellbeing. Becoming more attuned to the breath can improve memory, anxiety levels, digestion and chronic pain among other things. Learning about the breath and becoming more efficient at breathing can not only boost energy levels and improve thinking, it can also enhance the connection between the body and mind.
Physiologically, the act of breathing is completely automated, controlled by the respiratory centre in the brain’s medulla oblongata. This sends signals to the muscles that control respiration, causing breathing to occur.
Each breath you take allows oxygen to be absorbed into the body while each exhalation pushes carbon dioxide out. Your breath filters out microbes and debris, cycling fresh oxygen to organs and tissues while removing waste gases the body doesn’t need.
The muscles that control the lungs include the diaphragm, which sits underneath the lungs, and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. When you breathe well, nourishing oxygen flows through the body; however, when you don’t breathe well, you can restrict oxygen through half-breaths or saturate yourself by over-breathing.
While the average person breathes in and out more than 23,000 times a day, most of these breaths, especially when you’re awake, are short and shallow, only reaching the chest. While these shallow breaths are enough to keep you functioning, they don’t provide the kind of sustenance you need for optimum psychological and physiological wellbeing.
Ironically, you begin your life knowing how to breathe properly. Babies and children breathe well and deeply, nourishing body and mind and efficiently regulating their systems. But by the time you reach 10 years of age, your breathing skills diminish and you start to breathe with very little depth.
Why a skill so essential to living is lost comes down to a variety of cultural and lifestyle factors. According to researchers, these include imitating the poor posture and movement of parents and peers, wearing restrictive clothing, cultural cues that make you feel you have to hold your stomach in and increasingly fast, emotionally stressful lives. Add lack of exercise, long periods in front of computers and sedentary lifestyles and there are a number of ways that breathing is compromised.
The consequence of compromised breathing is you end up using only about a third of your lung capacity. As humans have become more sedentary, they now breathe at a rate of around 15 or more shallow breaths per minute as opposed to the 10 our ancestors took 100 years ago. Rather than using your diaphragm to breathe down into the abdomen, you might use your rib and neck muscles to breathe into the upper chest.
This shift from using the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to using the neck, ribs and chest puts pressure on these muscles, creating neck and back pain and even pelvic floor issues. This is because a key function of the diaphragm is to use the action of breathing to co-ordinate the deep abdominal and back muscles as well as pelvic floor to generate intra-abdominal pressure.
It is this intra-abdominal pressure, created by the combined effect of all the muscles surrounding the abdominal cavity, that builds the kind of sustainable core stability that supports your back and helps keep you pain free.
For many people, hunching over a computer means the posture is such that the intercostal muscles and diaphragm can’t contract well enough to create a good vacuum. Hence you don’t take in nearly as much air as your lungs can hold; nor do you have the capacity to push the air back out the way you should.
Bringing conscious awareness to your breath has a host of benefits that can enhance your physical, mental and emotional health.
Indeed, a 2006 study from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed that poor posture, out of a range of other positional variables, produced the worst lung capacity and expiratory flow, reducing lung capacity by as much as 30 per cent.
With reduced oxygen comes an increased risk of fatigue as well as heart and lung stress, which can elevate cortisol. Elevated cortisol is associated with a range of health issues including weight gain, mood swings and insomnia. It also compromises executive brain functions, affecting short-term memory and decision making.
Poor breathing is also linked to poor digestion and constipation due to the compromised action of the diaphragm as well as poor circulation, anxiety, depression and cardiovascular diseases.
Adding to the issue of whether your diaphragm is engaged properly is the question of whether you breathe through your nose or mouth. Normal calm breathing is done through the nose with each nostril functioning independently to filter, warm and moisten air before it reaches your lungs.
When you breathe through your mouth, however, none of this happens, leaving your lungs more vulnerable to infection. Mouth breathing can also lead to hyperventilation, snoring, dry lips and an impaired sense of smell and, because less oxygen is delivered to the brain, muscles and body cells, you may function less optimally overall.
In Eastern philosophies, mastery of the breath is the key to controlling the body’s life force energy. Accessing and balancing this subtle energy is understood as essential to wellbeing and mastery of the breath is viewed as the gateway to higher levels of consciousness. Western science and medicine have explored these techniques, finding that controlling the breath can indeed help manage a range of emotional, mental and physiological conditions.
When you breathe well, a range of biological changes occur including the lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood, reduced lactic acid buildup in muscle tissue, a balancing of levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, improved immune system functioning, increased physical energy and increased feelings of calm and wellbeing.
Studies around yogic styles of breathing found that participants’ lung functions were improved, allergies eased and asthma symptoms reduced. Additionally, study participants also demonstrated improved cognitive skills such as an increase in focus, improved alertness and decreases in emotional reactivity.
A clear mind is crucial for sound decision making yet poor breathing practice compromises such skills. For example, the levels of noradrenaline in the brain — released during activities that are challenging, require physical exertion and focus or are emotionally arousing — are directly impacted by the way you breathe. If produced at the right levels, noradrenaline helps the brain grow new connections, accounting for enhanced attention and improved brain health; at the wrong levels you are less able to focus, evaluate alternatives and move through crisis.
Negative emotion compromises your wellbeing on a range of levels, often making normal functioning difficult. Recent research has found that deep-breathing techniques reduce cortisol levels and negative mood in healthy adults, suggesting that diaphragmatic breathing enhances a sense of emotional wellbeing. At its core, this is because breathing well releases endorphins or “feel-good” hormones. Also, deep breathing releases tension by stimulating the vagus nerve, relaxing muscle tension and oxygenating the brain, and is ideal for reversing the physical symptoms of anxiety.
The impacts of diaphragmatic breathing on the relief of pain have been investigated for decades and found to have therapeutic effects. This works by relaxing the muscles that tense up as a result of pain and, in turn, further aggravate the pain itself.
Researchers suggest that, when you have tensed muscles and are in an anxious state of mind, you generally breathe through your chest. This type of shallow breathing leads to a disruption of the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide essential for achieving a relaxed state.
Apart from relaxing the muscles to reduce pain, diaphragmatic breathing also improves circulation and facilitates the most efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with the minimum amount of effort. How this works exactly is still being examined but one theory is that slow, deep breathing reduces pain by having a direct effect on the sympathetic nervous system, a network of fibres in the central nervous system that help control blood flow and skin temperature. Studies have demonstrated that dampening down the sympathetic nervous system can block pain.
There are a range of breathing practices that can be used to enhance breathing. Practising these techniques even for just a few minutes a day will help you to develop better habits.
This technique involves focusing attention on your rib cage so you can feel where the breath should expand your body via the intercostal muscles. It can be done while in a seated position.
Close your eyes and focus inwards. Straighten your spine and place your hands on your ribcage to feel the movement there. With every inhalation, feel the expansion of your ribcage at the front, side and back and, with every exhalation, slowly contract your ribcage. Keep breathing in this way for a few moments, consciously expanding and contracting your ribcage. As you move more deeply into the practice, begin to imagine drawing energy into your whole body with every breath in and out, letting go of any tension.
This technique can be practised in any position but while learning it it’s better to be seated.
Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth, keeping it there through the entire exercise. Exhale through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this feels too strange. Breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale using a whooshing sound to a count of eight. Repeat up to four times.
This technique is best learned while lying down, moving to a seated and then standing position as you become more proficient.
Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Follow your breathing for a minute or two with your attention on which parts of your body your breath moves. Place your hands (one on top of the other) on your belly with the centre of your lower hand touching your navel. Again, pay attention to where your breath moves your body. If it isn’t clear, placing a book on your belly instead of your hands adds weight, making it easier to feel your breath.
With the weight of the book or your hands resting on your belly, lift the book as you inhale and hold it for about five seconds. Then lower the book slowly as you exhale all the air in your lungs through your mouth. Repeat five or six times, breathing in through the nose. Repeat again but, instead of just holding the book for five seconds, recite the numbers 1 to 10, lowering the book as you do.
Repeat the process, increasing your count to 15 and then 20, but don’t strain. When you take a breath in at the end of each count, make sure you inhale from the belly. When the above exercise feels easy and more natural, repeat all of the above steps in a seated then a standing position.
Using “breath triggers” will help you develop a new habit so it becomes the way you breathe most of the time. For example, taking a deep breath every time your train stops at a new station or every time you stop at a traffic light can help build new patterns of breathing. It can also be useful to bring your attention to your breathing when performing daily tasks such as showering, cooking or cleaning up and even when an ad comes on the television.
Choosing a practice and bringing conscious awareness to your breath has a host of benefits that can enhance your physical, mental and emotional health, improving the way the body utilises oxygen and removing toxins that can reduce the efficiency of the body and mind.