"Basically, one does not learn to breathe correctly-one only relearns the natural breathing that was unconscious in childhood."—Astrid Varnay
Right now, take a loooong deep breath gently in through your nose and then gently out through your mouth. How did that feel?
Breathing is one of the most magical, mysterious, and powerful movements we have. In many spiritual practices, breathing is the connection to life and if you take a moment to think about that, you can probably see why. Stop breathing and well...
Not only is breathing so vital but breathing properly is associated with numerous incredible health benefits. However, some of us may struggle with the breath, which blocks us from receiving those health giving benefits.
Fortunately, there's a lot that we can do to "stack the conditions in our favor" for healthy breathing. In this article, we're going to explore the mechanisms of breathing, and how to do it well. I'll also share a quick dietary tip to alleviate breathing problems. Let's go!
How Breathing Works
It's really quite astounding how breathing works from a physiological standpoint. I like to say that the more we understand how physical processes work, the more amazing they become. Let's have a look here and see.
If you look at the image above you will see 5 major pieces that make up our respiratory or breathing system. Each one plays a vital part in our breathing. The best way to illustrate the amazing process of breathing is to describe what exactly happens when you take in that breath.
When you breathe in air through the mouth or nose, it moves through the trachea (windpipe). The diaphragm then contracts (tightens) and moves downwards. This makes space in your chest cavity for your lungs to expand into as the air gets pulled into them.
Also, your intercostal muscles, muscles between your rib cage, contract to pull the ribs up and out when you inhale making even more space.
As the air fills your lungs, it eventually beings to reach the alveoli or air sacs. Alveoli have very thin walls enabling oxygen from the air to pass into the surrounding blood vessels (capillaries).
Hemoglobin, a red blood cell protein, helps to move this oxygen from the air sacs into the blood, and at the same time as all this, carbon dioxide is moved from the blood vessels into the air sacs.
Now oxygen rich blood is carried through the blood vessels to the left side of the heart where it can be pumped through the rest of the body.
Great. So now, we have all the rich oxygen running through our blood. What about the air we just used? Now, it's time for the exhalation, breathing out.
When you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up into the chest cavity. The intercostal muscles along your ribs relax as well. This reduces the space in the chest cavity, pushing now carbon dioxide-rich air up through your windpipe and out your nose or mouth.
That amazing process is how you keep alive, minute after minute. It is a delicate machinery that happens naturally for most people, but some of us due to conditioning over time, make it more difficult to get in that air all the way for its rich benefits.
Put out the Flames of Inflammation First
Before getting into the mechanics of proper breathing, it is imperative for me to mention the element of dietary and environmental toxins on your respiratory health.
Too often, we go straight for the exercise before considering internal factors, and I want to bring a few of these to your attention right now.
First, diet. A diet that is high in toxic foods such as industrial seed oils, (canola, soy, cottonseed, sunflower), and autoimmune aggravators such as gluten and dairy, will be detrimental to your breathing.
Studies show that grains especially are linked to inflammation which is one of the leading factors in respiratory problems. Since inflammation is the root of so many problems too we need to put out the flames right now.
If you are really serious about improving your breathing health do yourself a favor and cut out grains completely. It sounds drastic but believe me, it can absolutely change your life in more ways than even breathing. I'll be writing a whole guide on how to reduce inflammation and why grains shouldn't be in the diet soon, but if you want to dive in now you can do that here.
So try it for a few weeks, and tell me if your breathing problems did not improve. Now, moving on to the mechanics...
How to Breathe
You might be saying, "okay Zayd, you tell me you want to raise my self-esteem but you don't even think I'm able to breathe, what gives?" And my answer is to give me a moment and allow me to show you how you can make a huge difference in your life through a simple physical adjustment.
Breathing properly has been shown to improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, enhance parasympathetic tone, (responsible for the restoration and relaxation in your body), reduce the effects of stress and increase physical and mental health. That's a lot! For anyone with a breathing disorder, this information is essential. You can, in effect, improve your breathing by breathing.
So, before you go anywhere, stop where you are and take a deep breath. Just do that and get an awareness of where you are and what is happening in your body.
Now, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a looong deep breath, in through your mouth and nose and notice which one of your hands rose up.
If you're like most people the hand on your chest probably rose up without much action from the hand on your belly. Your shoulders go up like you are trying to hug your ears.
If that's the case, then you are not breathing quite right. If you watch small children, or better yet an infant you will not see his chest rise when he breathes, you will see his belly rise instead. That is how we are all meant to breathe.
Do you remember that diaphragm we mentioned earlier? It is located in your abdominal region and is responsible for opening space for air to enter your body. When you breathe in through your chest you are not allowing it to do its job and instead weaker support muscles are forced to take over.
All that's not good because not only are you not getting all those benefits we mentioned earlier, but you are instead accumulating stress on your body over the day. How? When your body is not releasing all the old air, new air creates a pile on top of the old making it more difficult for your body to deal with it.
To illustrate this point, let's try a couple exercises on bad breathing. (Don't worry, we'll learn how to do it right too!" Note: these " bad" exercises are from bestselling author and health crusader Mark Sission.
Stand nice and tall. Now, raise your shoulders as high as you can. Hold that position and (try) to take a deep breath. How'd that feel? It was probably weak and labored.
Too long at the Office
Alright, for this one hunch over with your upper back. Imagine as though you've been working for a long day at the office and are starting to doze off as you type. Let your chest cave in, your shoulder blades spread out and your head fall forward. Yep. Now try another deep breath. No way right?
Pulling it In
Last one now. Suck in your belly as much as you can. Really pull in your gut and flex your abs, kind of like some of us do before a photo after Thanksgiving dinner. Breathe in. What happened?
While all of those exercises may seem silly, the reality is that many of us are breathing like that every day. Far too many people are breathing with a combination of all 3 of those positions!
With that kind of labored breathing, is it a surprise so many people are feeling tired and out of it? The power of the breath can bring so much vitality, and it's time to reclaim it. It's really simple to do too.
Relearning the Breath
So, we understand the benefits of breathing well, and we know what ineffective breathing looks like. Let's get into how to do it right and reap the rewards.
The simplest way to get a feel for what proper breathing feels like is to return to that one hand on the chest, one on the belly position. Close your eyes, and really concentrate on breathing in to make the hand on your belly rise. Do this with me right now a few times. Breathe in nose and out nose, exhaling through the mouth instead after every few breaths.
If this is difficult for you to do and you are having trouble getting the sensation of what you should be feeling try this next exercise.
Book Belly Breathing
1. Get a book, pillow, or any lightweight object and place it by your side.
2. Lie down on your back.
3. Relax your whole body by tensing and releasing all your muscles. Inhale and start clenching from your feet, up through your legs, hips, and belly. Clench your fist, tighten your chest, neck, and head. Then release...exhale.
4. Place the book (or object) on your belly, pay attention to the sensation of it being there.
5. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply, focusing on making that book go up as you inhale. Then exhale and feel the book go down.
6. Repeat this 5-10 times. (And try not to fall asleep!)
Now, when you return to the upright position with the hands on chest and belly, you will be able to remember what the feeling of a proper breath is like. You should feel a powerful difference. There's a lot going on there and you are tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxed state), making everything in your body work better.
As you get more and more familiar with this feeling you can gradually move to using only one hand for awareness and then none, making proper breathing a daily habit for life.
Okay, so now you know what a good breath feels like and you've modified your diet to facilitate good breathing.
During my time as a trombonist, and even now with my limited lung capacity, I practice various breathing exercises and methods to keep the air moving well through my body. It wasn't until I started feeling what real breathing was that I understood how limited mine used to be.
Once you get an idea of what a proper breath feels like, then you open a gateway into new worlds. Along with feeling better physically, you are more equipped to enter some other really cool and beneficial dimensions like singing, martial arts, and meditation which take your life to a new level. Singers, meditators, and martial artists have known for thousands of years now that there's breathing, and then there's breathing.
In a later post, I'll cover those kinds of breathing-centric practices, that are really cool and really powerful, but for now, practice this deep belly breathing.
Whenever you have a moment, pause and take a breath down to your abdomen. A great way to get some breaths in is at a stop light. Instead of cursing out the driver that cut you off, pause and take a few deep breaths.
If you're stressed out, breathe. If you're angry, breathe. If you're bored, breathe. If you're working hard, playing hard, or doing anything else, breathe, it will make all the difference.
It's simple, it's easy, it's free, and it can change your life.
Thank you so much for reading today! I hope you found this article useful. Share it with your friends and family. It can be funny to watch people do the "bad" exercises. And it can be amazing to see the relaxation that enters their eyes when they do it right. Enjoy and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a beautiful rest of your day!