Unless the afterlife has wifi, I can presume that you’re alive and reasonably well if you’re reading this post, so I’m going to assume you’ve been successfully breathing for some time. You get enough oxygen into your blood to support your physiological requirements and power your limbs, organs, and muscles. You know how to inhale, and exhaling is a breeze. You even know how to breathe through your nostrils like a champ. In other words, you can breathe well enough to live. What could you possibly be missing?
There’s a pretty good chance you aren’t breathing correctly. At rest, when sleeping, while running – you can probably breathe different and breathe better. Okay, you’re willing to accept that, as a whole, we’ve missed the mark on a host of supposedly mundane activities – eating, exercising, sitting, sleeping, standing, washing, heck, even pooping – but breathing? You’ve gone too far this time, Sisson. You’re firmly in the deep end. I breathe just fine.
Hear me out, and before you read any further, I’m going to have you take a deeeeep breath, so I can show you what you’re doing wrong. Don’t skip ahead; no cheating.
Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Take a big breath by inhaling through your nose or your mouth (whichever is most natural for you), slowly. Really fill your lungs, and note which hand rises more. Did your right hand move first and most, with your left hand lagging behind – if it moved at all? Did your shoulders go up? Did your traps rise like you were shrugging a couple dumbbells? Congratulations, you are a chest breather.
Now, procure an infant, preferably one with an exposed, protruding belly. Gender matters not. Got one? Great. Lay your infant on its back and watch how the kid breathes. Does his chest rise and rib cage expand? Maybe a little, but the bulk of the action is happening in the belly button region, right? That kid is “belly breathing.” In other words, he is using his diaphragm, a sheet of muscle located between the thoracic and abdominal cavities that (if you do it right) draws oxygen into the lungs upon activation. When it contracts, it moves down into the abdominal cavity, pushing the belly out, increasing the capacity of the lungs while lowering the air pressure, thus spurring the influx of oxygen. The external intercostals, muscles located between the ribs (flex your core with a finger on your ribs and you’ll feel the intercostals fill the gaps), also assist with respiration, but the diaphragm is the prime mover.
If your right hand rose first and most prominently in the previous exercise, you did not effectively utilize your diaphragm. Like the office worker with inactive glutes from too much sitting, you have an inactive diaphragm. Your synergist muscles – the helper muscles that assist the prime mover – are forced to take over. Without the diaphragm contracting and opening up the lower half of the lungs, less space is available for incoming air. Not only that, but according to some, the lower half of the lungs is also by far the most efficient at delivering oxygen; the bottom 13% of the lungs brings in 60 mL O2 per minute, while the top 7% only brings in 4 mL per minute. Chest breathing to the exclusion of diaphragmatic breathing (and that bottom 13%), then, is highly inefficient because it squanders added capacity and more effective tissue.
To really accentuate the inefficiency and help you understand how exclusively chest breathing limits your oxygen, let’s try a couple quick exercises. Stand tall and shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Hold that position and take a deep breath. Or, rather, try to take a deep breath. You can’t do it. You can take in some air, but not a lot, and what you can take in sounds labored. There’s a big whooshing sound that just doesn’t feel right. It feels… weak.
Next, hunch over at the thoracic spine. Imagine you’re typing away at the computer (shouldn’t be too hard, seeing as how you’re probably reading this post on a computer) and let your chest cave in, your shoulder blades spread out, and your head droop forward. In other words, give yourself the type of terrible posture that millions of us sport each day. Hold that position and try to take a deep breath. It’s belabored, right?
Finally, suck in your gut. Flex those abs and flatten that belly. Inhale, and note how thin and ineffectual your breathing sounds and feels. Your diaphragm is pinned against your contracted abdominal muscles. It can’t go anywhere. It can’t do anything, and your breathing suffers for it.
These seemingly exaggerated scenarios actually are not. Realize that a good portion of people go about their day with tight traps, shrugged shoulders, rounded backs, and caved-in chests, constantly sucking in their stomachs as they try to breathe. You see them every day. You work with them. You might even do it yourself without realizing. It’s anything but rare. It’s normal! Alan Watts writes of this “normal” breathing as “fitful and anxious,” with residual air “always being held and not fully released.” Folks hold onto their air and simply pile more on top with the next breath, rather than breathe completely in and completely out each time. They get new air mixed in with the old stuff, enough to function but not enough to thrive. You’ll notice that the only time they truly expel everything from the lungs is when some stressful event elicits a massively audible sigh. That sigh clears everything out and brings a fresh supply of air back in, thus giving a boost of oxygen to the blood and helping us deal with the stress. In other words, most of us can’t even figure out how to breathe deeply in and out on our own to promote relaxation. We rely on our subconscious to do it for us.
I say, why wait for our subconscious to kick in? Why not practice proper breathing at all times and reap the benefits without having to wait till stress accumulates and does it for us? Why not do some diaphragmatic, or belly breathing?
You can do this lying down or standing up. To start with, I prefer lying down because it lets you really relax and focus on the movement of the diaphragm. Place your hands on your belly, or even lay a book with reasonable heft on your belly (this will give you something to brace against). Now, take a deep breath and let your belly expand as your diaphragm asserts itself. Your chest and shoulders may rise and your ribs may expand, but this is totally normal and expected as long as the belly moves first. Next, slowly exhale while tightening your core and contracting your abs. As the abdominal muscles contract, they’ll push the diaphragm back up. This will reduce the volume of the thoracic cavity, increase the air pressure, and expel the air contained therein. Continue to take deep diaphragmatic breaths for a couple minutes. Inhale three seconds, exhale six to ten seconds. Big, deep, slow, relaxing breaths.
Do you feel the difference? The relaxation? You might even fall asleep if you’re not careful. While there appear to be objective benefits to making this your default setting, like increased oxygen supply (great for general living and athletic performance), and I’ve already gone over how deep breathing can enhance a healthy lifestyle, the real allure of breathing with your diaphragm is simply using your respiratory as it was meant to be used. The benefits we get from breathing this way – like a reduction in hypertension – stem from eliminating the short, rapid, vapid breaths of chest breathing. We’re not getting “more” or “extra” oxygen; we’re just getting the amount of oxygen that our body “expects.” Nay, that it deserves.
How did belly breathing work for you? Were you a chest breather, or are you way ahead of the curve to begin with? Practice it enough, and eventually it’ll become second nature. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!
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