Last week I wrote about the importance of breathing through our noses, especially during sleep. This week, I'll dive a little deeper into the mechanics of the breath, the benefits of proper breathing, common issues, and the best way to practice.
The act of breathing is one of the most unique systems in our body. The set of muscles and tissues involved in our breathing is controlled by both the autonomic (unconscious) and somatic (voluntary) branches of our nervous system. In other words, if you don't think about your breath at all, your default patterns will take over to keep you alive and oxygenated. However, you can also use your brain to control your breath, but most can't maintain this focus for very long (as we will explore later).
The primary muscle involved in respiration is the diaphragm. It spreads out like the skin of a drum from the top of the lumbar vertebra around the lower rim of the ribcage. When it contracts it moves downward into the abdomen, allowing the lungs to expand due to the negative pressure created in the thoracic cavity in the chest. If you watch a baby breathe this muscle's action is quite obvious. When they breathe in, their little bellies expand (being displaced by the diaphragm), and when they exhale their bellies deflate. This is what we call "diaphragmatic" or "belly-breathing."
The secondary muscles involved in respiration are the intercostal (between ribs), abdominal, and shoulder muscles (mainly the upper trapezius). While these muscles are part of taking a full breath, they should not be the primary engines for filling the lungs. Unfortunately, a large majority of us adults use them as such. To test this, go to a mirror and take a big breath. If your shoulders rise prior to your belly expanding, then your breathing pattern has been reversed. This is what we call "chest breathing."
Very small children are naturally belly-breathers, but we learn fairly early on how to chest breathe from our caregivers. This isn't something that is overtly taught, per se, (other than the common advice to "suck one's belly in"). Rather, it is absorbed by watching the body language of our peers and mentors. The negatives of a reverse breathing pattern are manifold, but on the top of the list are increased shoulder tension, decreased oxygenation, poor digestion, and an increased feeling of anxiety. If you combine chest breathing with mouth breathing you can tack on increased chances of developing sinus and oral issues, decreased immunity, and deleterious changes in facial structure.
Diaphragmatic breathing (combined with nostril breathing) improves digestion, increases vagal tone (thus reducing anxiety), and more richly oxygenates the blood. Passing air through the nose helps to clean it and increases our innate immunity and improves our facial structure and oral health. We should aim to spend most of our time belly breathing, in and out of the nose, as slowly as possible. This trains our central nervous system to be calmer globally. When we are stressed (including when exercising), we tend to reverse breath, shorten our breaths, and breathe through our mouths. When you notice yourself doing this, try to reverse the reversal. The street goes both ways.
Developing a daily practice of proper breathing is essential when you begin training your breath. Setting up at least one daily three-minute block for a "breath workout" is the bare minimum. If done consistently, you will spontaneously begin to notice when you default to a bad breathing pattern throughout the day. Furthermore, setting up little cues during your working day will engrain better breathing habits. Some examples of this are taking a "breath reset" at the top of every hour, whenever you see something red, or whenever you step through a door. The cue is just there to remind you to check in to your breath. With enough repetition, the somatic program with work its way into the autonomic program, and you will become unconsciously good at breathing.