Breathing isn’t really something we think about much—unless something goes terribly wrong. Just like our heartbeat, we can breathe without conscious effort. But when we have trouble breathing or “run out of breath” from strenuous activities, then it’s at the forefront of our minds.
Yet breathing and our respiratory system are intimately intertwined with our mental and physical well-being. Our ability to control our breath gives us opportunities to change our energy levels, hype us up or calm us down, and respond to other feelings that may seem out of our control.
The world of the breathing techniques
There has been a huge rise in interest in “breathwork” in the last few years, in the western wellness world at least (spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism have long known about the benefits of breathing well). Interviewed by The Guardian, Aimee Hartley is a Transformational Breath coach, the method created by Judith Kravitz in the 70s. There are other methods, including Buteyko and holotropic, as well as the ancient pranayama, or breath control practice, in yoga. One of the stars of the breathwork world is Wim Hof, who advocates breathing exercises alongside cold therapy and meditation. Hartley offers group and private breathwork sessions, and published a book earlier this year, Breathe Well. Hers is just one of a number of books on breathing out this year, including Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art by the journalist James Nestor and Exhale by Richie Bostock, an Instagram-friendly coach who describes breathwork as “the next revolution in health and wellness”.
These are exercises that promise to help us become better breathers, which, it is claimed by practitioners, can transform our physical and mental health by improving immune function, sleep, digestion and respiratory conditions, and reducing blood pressure and anxiety (or transporting you to a higher realm of consciousness, if that is your thing).
Breathing during the Covid-19 pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic may have accelerated the breath-training trend. Faced with a virus that affects the respiratory system, attacking the lungs of those severely affected and often leaving even those with mild symptoms with a breathlessness lasting months, there has been a renewed focus on breath. Should you be worried about someone standing close enough to breathe on you? Are you used to breathing through a face mask yet? Is suddenly being aware that it’s harder to take a deep breath a Covid symptom, or a sign of the anxiety many of us are experiencing at the moment? “I think people are becoming more aware of how they breathe and how that affects them,” says Hartley, who has been teaching clients over Zoom since lockdown began. “I’ve had clients that are now in recovery from Covid and they’ve said they have never become so aware of their breathing”.
Breathwork has become fashionable, she thinks, “because it works”. The increased profile of mindfulness, with its focus on breathing, has been another reason, but even while we sit, eyes closed, following the guidance of an app, few of us know how to breathe well, she says.
It is hardly surprising, she says: “Modern life stops us breathing well”. Stress is associated with small, quick breaths which, in turn, makes us feel even more frazzled. Hartley has observed that people who live in cities, with the added problem of air pollution, unconsciously take in shallower breaths. And even tight-fitting clothes, or snug bras, can affect your breathing, while “this mad desire to be skinny”, she says, has meant people holding their stomachs in – she says she has seen people reluctant to take a full breath because it gives a rounded-tummy shape.
How do you breathe?
We’ll talk now about that more in detail and share a series of exercises that can help optimize your breathing and teach you how to control it, but first let’s take a look at how you are breathing right now.
In whatever position you happen to be in, observe your normal breath for a bit. (Don’t think about breathing deeply yet.)
- Does it seem shallow or deep?
- Quick or slow?
- What parts of your body are moving more? Or at all?
- Does anything feel restricted?
Now repeat your observation, but this time, take a few deep breaths in and out. Has anything changed? Anything moving more or less? Did you notice any change in how you feel?
A very simple observation exercise like this can tell you a lot about your habitual style of breathing and how it affects your physical and mental performance.
Breathing types and how they affect you
In the exercise you just performed, you may have noticed that your chest moved more than your stomach, or the opposite happened. This is one of the first steps to understanding more about how to optimize your breathing for your needs.
Chest (Apical) Breath: Your upper chest and ribs expand and everything below stays still.
Belly Breath: Your lower stomach expands as you inhale and your chest remains still.
Diaphragmatic Breath: Initially, your belly moves, and as it expands, your lower and upper ribs and chest fill, as well.
Chest breathing often happens naturally when we exercise hard and try to “catch our breath.” It’s a normal response to our body and mind’s desire to adjust the disruption of oxygen and carbon dioxide balance. You’ve probably noticed that it’s also the breathing pattern that happens when you are anxious and scared, regardless of whether you have exerted yourself. Often, this brings with it a higher heart rate and a sensation of restlessness, as if you need to get up and move right away.
It’s a prime example of the connection between our breath and our emotions. You can actually make yourself anxious by repetitive, fast, chest-only breathing.
Belly breathing is another pattern that is habitual to some people. While it does tend to be calming, it may be too calming and also isn’t a very deep breath. So it can be related to a sensation of low energy. It has its purposes, but in general, we want to encourage the full diaphragmatic breath when we are up and about and being active. In most people, there’ll be a lower heart rate as compared to chest breathing.
Now let’s try a different breathing exercise to get a better sense of what we’ve just talked about.
Slow exhale and hold breathing
Begin by thinking of something that makes you anxious. Heights, public speaking, spiders—whatever gives you anxiety. Dwell on it a bit, and do a few rapid chest breaths.
Stop that and work on a slow, controlled exhale, breathing out as much air as you can.
Wait and hold there at the end of the exhale for a couple of seconds. Inhale again and repeat that controlled exhale, and hold for five to 10 breaths.
What do you notice at the end of that? I’ll bet you are feeling much less anxious and more calm. That’s the power of breath control!
Breath optimization exercises
Now that you understand the different types of breath, let’s work on improving your capability for breathing. Primarily, that means making sure that there are no physical restrictions that prevent you from taking an easy and full breath whenever you want (or need) to.
We’ll do this by practicing spinal mobility exercises combined with controlled chest breaths to help expand and “stretch” your ribs. You aren’t really stretching your ribs! You’re working on the flexibility of all the various muscles around your chest and core and back.
For all these exercises, kneel in front of a supportive surface such as a coffee table or the seat of a chair. You’ll likely have to adjust your kneeling position and how far away your hips are from the support before you find your good positioning. And if at any time you feel lightheaded or dizzy from deep breathing, please stop! You can take as much of a rest as you like between repetitions and between exercises.
Extension is “back bending,” so your emphasis here will be on “opening your chest up” and bending backward in your spine. You’ll likely also feel a stretch along your stomach and by your ribs. Breathe in as you go into the stretch, and exhale as you return to thebeginning position. Repeat this five to 10 times, and on the last repetition, hold the stretch (not your breath!) for 15 to 30 seconds. Then practice expanding your ribs by taking in a deep chest breath. Five to 10 breaths would be great!
Thorax Side Bending
Just as in the first exercise, go into and out of the stretch as you bend to the side, and after your brief stretching hold, breathe in deeply to expand your chest in the side-bent position.
This last exercise focuses on rotation. Emphasize lifting your chest up toward the ceiling as you turn. (It helps to turn your head and “look where you are going.”) Again, just as in the first two exercises, practice going into and out of the stretched position a few times, then hold a stretch, and finally finish with the deep breaths to expand your ribs.
As always, take your time with practicing these exercises, and remember it’s better to do a little at a time more consistently than to exhaust yourself one time and not practice again. This is especially true with these breathing exercises because our breathing patterns are such an ingrained habit. It doesn’t mean they can’t be changed; it will just likely take more patient practice. But we know you’ll find it worth your time when you notice the improvements in your energy and recovery.
If you want to know how to improve the quality of the air you breathe in your own home, read this!
Read the full articles and more here:
1. Ryan Hurst, 24Life.com, The Importance of Breath and how to Improve and Control it for your Best Health and Fitness
2. Emine Saner, 26 August 2020 – The Guardian, How to take the perfect breath: why learning to breathe properly could change your life
3.Honah Liles, 3 May 2021, Business Insider Italia, Three Deep Breathing Exercises to Sleep Better and Relax Faster
4. Catherine Fitzmaurice, 30 April 2015, Taylor & Francis Online, Breathing matters
5. Beena Ahmed, Hira Mujeeb Khan, Jongyong Choi, Ricardo Gutierrez-Osuna, 22 July 2015, IEEE, ReBreathe: A Calibration Protocol that Improves Stress/Relax Classification by Relabeling Deep Breathing Relaxation Exercises (https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7164293)