Breathing is automatic and most of us go day to day without even thinking about it. How do we know if we are breathing correctly? Is there even a correct way of breathing?
Take a few minutes to think about how you are breathing right now. Think about the speed and pattern of your breathing, as well as where the air you’re breathing in and out is actually going.
Studies have shown (2), that noticing your own breathing patterns can help you relax, normalise and improve brain biochemistry, reduce muscle pain and re-establish normal posture. Sounds pretty important right? The next question is obviously how?
To understand that, it helps to know a little about the mechanism of breathing in our bodies. When you breathe in your diaphragm moves downwards. This increases the space in your chest for your lungs to expand, with the aid of your intercostal muscles between your ribs pulling your rib cage upward and outward. Air is sucked in through your nose or mouth, travels down your windpipe and into your expanding lungs. Once in the lungs the air gets transported through the bronchial tubes, which branch out to the alveoli. Here oxygen passes to the surrounding capillaries (blood vessels).
When breathing out your diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax and move upwards into the chest cavity, reducing the space. As this happens the air rich in carbon dioxide is forced out of your lungs, through the windpipe and out of your nose or mouth. The oxygen having gone to the heart is pumped to the surrounded tissues, most importantly your brain, which is vital for our bodies to function.
How do we now make the most of this process? Sitting in an upright position at rest almost no blood travels to the top of the lungs, therefore the blood supply is good in the base of your lungs and here is where oxygen and carbon dioxide transfer takes place. Imagine your lungs are like pyramids, with the bulk of the lungs at the bottom. If you want to absorb oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide efficiently it makes sense to use the part of your lungs where most of the blood supply and air goes – the lower half of your lungs (2). Keeping that in mind and knowing the important role our diaphragm has when we breathe tells us we should breathe using our abdomen.
Once the air is in we now know where to direct it, but where should we breath the air in through? Nasal breathing is believed to be more effective compared to breathing through our mouths, improving oxygen uptake in the blood by ten percent and helps improve overall lung capacity (2). Breathing through your nose also helps maintain a steady pressure and maintains a continuous transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and alveoli (tubes in your lungs). Our noses and sinuses also produce a gas, nitric oxide, which improves oxygen concentrations and can sterilise incoming air in the nose. With all of this improved by slow breathing, enabling us to fully utilise the air we breathe.
Posture also plays a big part in the way we breathe. Good posture and abdominal breathing are key and actually go hand in hand. Poor breathing habits can impact on your posture, causing your shoulders to round, head falling forwards and compromised spine stability. Whereas, good breathing habits increases your awareness of your posture, enabling you to maintain a steady breathing rate and efficient breathing patterns. Keep your shoulders in line with your collar bone, head central and upright. Your body will be grateful in the long run!
Now we know what we should be doing, have a quick look at how to achieve this. Beginning with having an awareness of your own breathing pattern, try slowing it down and mastering nasal and abdominal breathing. A couple of breathing exercises you could try are available on the resources section of this website’. One being the pump action breathing, which is used to assess your style of breathing, and the beach pose, to start training yourself in breathing efficiently. Also, the “Breathing Matters” book, which further explains the importance of breathing correctly and how to do so, is highly recommended.
It’s a lot to taken in and will require some time and practice to correct your ways of breathing. It is such a normal and natural process we all can take for granted. Just remember to slow down and spare some time for your breathing, it’ll definitely be worth it!
2) Bartey, J. and Clifton-Smith, T (2006). Breathing Matters. Auckland: Random House New Zealand. 41, 42.