Learning how to breathe properly will have dramatic benefits to your health and strength in more ways than you can imagine. We are all born with the ability to breathe properly however factors such as stress, poor posture, sedentary lifestyles and sometimes the desire to ‘draw in the belly’ to look thinner all contribute to dysfunctional breathing.
Proper breathing can have a multitude of beneficial effects such as decreased inflammation, improved sleep, increased activation of the lymphatic system, less colds, reduction in stress & anxiety, mental health benefits, heightened focus, and increased strength to name a few.
Most people are chest breathers which is evident by simply observing one’s shoulders and see whether they elevate or not. This is even more pronounced if asked to take a deep breath in. Ironically this way of breathing only allows for partial oxygen uptake.
Chest breathing contracts the muscles of the neck, chest and shoulders every breathe.
Humans on average take 20,000 breaths every day so if you ever wondered why the above muscles are chronically tight, no amount of stretching or massage will get rid of it unless the underlying problem is resolve
We should be breathing into our waist which is what we call diaphragmatic breathing. Our diaphragm is a parachute like muscle below our lungs which contract downwards on a breath in allowing our lungs to fully expand. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes upwards pushing up into the lungs as we expel carbon dioxide.
Additionally, our breathing should come from an inhalation through the nose instead of the mouth the majority of the time. Certain situations such as specific breathing techniques, a stuffy nose or swimming necessitate breathing in through our mouth however our default method should be nasal inhalations.
Nasal breathing increases nitric oxide production will widen blood vessels and allows more oxygen uptake throughout the body. It will also filter and moisten the air we breathe in whereas the mouth does not.
How to Breathe:
Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically is actually quite simple starting with two variations.
Supine Position –
Begin by laying on your back with your knees bent with one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Focus on breathing deep into your stomach so that only your hand on your stomach moves and your chest does not.
Set a timer for a pre-determined time and perform this at least once a day. A general guideline is 5 minutes performed 1-4 times a day however this can be adjusted depending on your situation. There is no limit to how often/long you can do this.
Seated Position –
Any seated position will do whether you are sitting down cross-legged, kneeling on your shins or seated in a chair. The only cue I would instruct universally is imagine a tall and erect spine that is relaxed.
I personally enjoy and recommend the zazen postures which you can read more about here.
The same instructions as above. Eventually you will need to be able to do this while standing, walking and whichever modality you choose for cardio such as running or rowing.
How to know if you're doing this correctly:
Your abdomen should expand
Your waist should expand laterally
Your lower back just above your hip bones should push out
You can place your fingers in the above spots as you breathe and feel whether they are expanding or not.
During your breathing practice, some key points you should consider:
Your breathing should not feel strained but rather easy. Generally speaking, your breathing will be barely audible;
Close your eyes;
Breathe by expanding your belly in a 360° manner and not your chest;
Focus purely on your breath and let your senses amplify;
If any thoughts, emotions or distractions enter your mind simply let them through just as one observes an aeroplane pass over them;
Recenter yourself by focusing in on your inhale and exhale;
Exit your breathing practice slowly;
During the day as you breathe, use these sessions as a reference point and ask yourself: am I chest breathing or diaphragmatically breathing right now?
The time it will take to retrain your breath will vary from person to person however don't make it the goal. Simply focus on your breath, build your awareness, recenter yourself and everything will work out in the end.
Even when one has trained themselves to breathe properly throughout the day, the above sessions are still worth doing as you may of have noticed it is a form of meditation which has a multitude of benefits.
Upon listening to an Andrew Huberman podcast regarding breathing to which you can listen here, it was taken my understanding of the impacts on breathing leaps forward!
A lot of people over breathe and under breathe usually when awake and asleep respectively. A test that can be performed is the carbon dioxide tolerance test.
Once we have our score, we're able to perform box breathing with the appropriate prescription even just once or twice a week for 2-5 minutes as the bare minimum to improve our breathing patterns around the clock.
I personally try to aim for 5 minutes every day and if I can't make 5 minutes, I just spend a couple of minutes performing it whenever I find a window of time such as when I'm waiting for my car to warm-up.
How do we perform the test?
Take 3-5 full breathes in and out through the nose and on the last one, with a maximum inhalation, exhale out your nose as slowly as possible. The test stops when you run out of air or you breathe in.
If you score lower than 25 seconds you have a low carbon dioxide tolerance and you'll perform box breathing with a 3 second count.
Between 25-40 seconds you have a moderate carbon dioxide tolerance and you'll perform box breathing with a 5-6 second count.
Higher than 50 seconds you have a high tolerance and you'll perform box breathing with an 8-10 second count.
How do you perform box breathing? It simply means you will inhale for a predetermined amount of time, hold your breath, exhale and hold your breath again each for the same amount of time.
Inhale = 3 seconds
Hold = 3 seconds
Exhale = 3 seconds
Hold = 3 seconds
That's 1 box breath and you'll repeat that for 2-5 minutes.
I personally favour performing box breathing while walking as it serves as a simple time management tool.
I will walk normally and count how many steps I take within the timeframe determined by the carbon dioxide tolerance test. I may do this a few times to get the number of steps as accurately as possible to the timeframe.
Personally 5 steps is a good indicator for 3 seconds but that's me. Test for yourself and then you simply perform box breathing using your steps as a count.
Initially it might feel somewhat challenging to perform the box breathing to the prescribed count but after a few weeks it will most likely begin to feel easy and this is where you can retest your carbon dioxide tolerance test.
How to Relax Instantaneously and Reduce Stress Around the Clock, Improve Mood and Sleep
A method to instantly reduce stress/anxiety in as little as one breath is called the physiological sigh.
I was able to utilise this technique during my first jiu-jitsu competition and it worked so effectively at quelling my stress it felt like I was simply training at another regular day at my own school and not an environment where people are trying to dominant each other.
To perform a physiological sigh you inhale twice through the nose and exhale completely through the mouth.
The inhalation begins with one full breath in through the nose and followed by a sniff no matter how small the inhalation to fully top off the lungs. Then you will exhale audibly out our mouth until your lungs are empty.
Doing just one is great whenever you feel stress/anxiety creeping on. I did this whenever I felt my heart rate go up during the competition outside of an actual fight.
A study conducted by Andrew Huberman at Stanford University found that compared to different breathing practices and meditation, performing the physiological sigh (called cyclic sighing) for 5 minutes straight daily for a month had the best effect on improving mood, sleep and reduce stress around the clock.
These two methods take up a relatively small amount of time but can pay huge dividends to your overall wellbeing so make it a habit to make it a part of your routine!