If breath is life and life is breath, then why do we take it for granted? When sick or hurt, when happy or sad the breath seems to be the last thing on our minds, when in reality it should be the first. Breathing is an automatic thing the body does in order to live. The problem is that life often gets in the way of living.
Both good and bad experiences shape the way we take in and send out air; with the negative things having a much greater impact on the way we breathe long term. This amazing vessel we call the body is designed in such a way that air is pulled in and pushed out without conscious effort. When the body feels tension, when the mind observes stress it changes the texture, the length, the intensity and the motion of the breath. Then life just keeps happening! Things go from bad to worse and we get stuck in this unhealthy pattern of breathing. The worst part is that the breath of stress is meant to help us through tough situations but in itself leads to more stress.
The Wrong Breath
Oxygen is moving into my body right? Then how can it be wrong? The movement itself, of oxygen and carbon dioxide through the body, is not what is wrong but rather the how of it. Every baby breathes the same, it doesn’t matter if you live at the North Pole or in Fiji, a baby breathes the way nature intended. Over the years as life throws its curve balls the body tightens, the breath becomes stress focused instead of life focused. We hold the stomach in to look thinner, we puff the chest up to appear stronger, we take on more than we can handle. The fear of missing out, of being judged, feelings of insecurity have us holding our breath… and many other reasons why the body takes on the wrong breath.
Common types of wrong breathing patterns:
- The vertical breath – when the chest moves in an upward motion. This way of breathing is by far the most common. While somewhat effective the problem is that it uses accessory muscles to move air in and out of the lungs instead of the diaphragm. Accessory muscles are those of the neck and shoulders. These muscles were not made to move the weight of the rib cage in such a fashion for long periods of time. This is the classic “stress breath”; most common cause of tension headaches and neck strain.
- Gasping breath – Often taken on post injury or trauma this breath uses a vertical breathing pattern combined with short, sharp gasps of air. This is a panic breathing pattern. Long term it causes feelings of anxiety, head/neck tension, stomach upset, indigestion, poor sleep.
- Breath holding – where deep inhales are held and the exhale is leaked out slowly. I call this the anticipation breath. Often seen in people that are always waiting for something bad to happen. This type of breathing is usually coupled with a vertical breathing pattern; it can lead to depression, anxiety, mid-back pain, headaches.
There are other breathing patterns that also contribute to ill health. The one thing they all share is that they put pressure on the wrong parts of the body causing undue stress. The ramifications of which can show up in many different bodily ailments.
The Right Breath
While there are many types of incorrect breathing patterns that can contribute to poor health only 2 exist that bring about wellness.
- Abdominal breathing – While not perfect this type of breathing pattern makes use of the largest breathing muscle; the diaphragm. Abdominal breathing holds the chest still while the belly expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale. Abdominal breathing brings about feelings of relaxation, massages and soothes intestinal organs. Breathing in this way reduces tension by taking pressure off of the accessory muscles.
- 360 Breath – the perfect way to breathe, this is the primal breath. The one we were born with. On inhalation the rib cage expands in all directions on a horizontal plane; no lift of the chest. Full diaphragmic expansion allows the body its deepest breath with the proper balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen. This breath purifies, detoxifies, stimulates while reducing tension. All elements are in control when the body breathes in this fashion.
Both of these breathing patterns can be manipulated to bring about particular qualities. Alternate nostril breathing induces a sense of balance by stimulating both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. Breath of fire provides energy, stimulating the mind and prepping the body for action. Controlling the length of inhale versus exhale can either stimulate the mind or relax it…Look up yogic breathing and you will find a multitude of breathing patterns that when used in short duration provide effects to help us take control of life and live it to its fullest potential. All of these breaths and more use either the abdominal or 360 breath.
What next? How do I go from the wrong breath to the right one?
Inspiratory muscle training! This is weight lifting for you diaphragm. A muscle is a muscle. To use it effectively it has to be both long and strong. Strengthened and stretched. When stress has us stuck in a wrong breath for long periods of time the body can completely forget how to breathe with the right breath. This means the diaphragm becomes weak, the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) stiffen. The good news is these muscle scan be strengthen and stretched! By spending just a few minutes a few times a day we can retrain the body to bring about automatic correct breathing.
It begins with abdominal breathing, while many find it difficult to impossible to consciously expand the ribcage it is quite easy to expand and contract the belly. Sit in front of a mirror and observe your breath, watch your chest/abdomen to see what areas of the body move. If the chest is lifting place a hand here to remind yourself to keep it still. Place the other hand on the belly and try to use the abdominal muscles to push the belly hand away on the inhale and then pull it inwards on the exhale. This may sound easy but it can take a while to coordinate the movements.
Next lie down with feet flat, knees bent. One hand on the chest, one on the belly. Chest hand remains still while the belly hand rises on the inhale and falls on the exhale. Pelvic action can be useful here as well, on the exhale the hips tip upwards, small of the back presses into the floor. On the inhale the hips press into the ground increasing the space between low back and floor. The more exaggerated the movement the deeper the breath.
This is only the beginning! By taking control of your breath you take control of your life. A breath coach/trainer can help you build strength and learn how to breathe the primal breath without conscious effort so that when life throws its curve balls you are ready to take action and make that home run.
Want to learn more? to book an appointment with myself in person you can contact the Armoury Sports Medicine CLinic in Waterloo, ON