How often do you think about your breathing? Probably no more than you do about blinking or swallowing, unless you meditate a lot… So it may come as a surprise that the way we breathe habitually can have a major effect on our physical and emotional wellbeing.
We’re all born breathing in the optimal way. But as we begin to spend more of our time sitting down (first at school and later, the office), face new responsibilities and stressful situations and are even encouraged ‘suck it in’ to make our stomachs appear flatter, many of us switch over time to a less efficient, shallower style of breathing. And the difference in the amount of fresh, oxygenated air our body receives with each breath can be huge: shallow breathing may use only about a third of our lung capacity (que lethargy, poor digestion, anxiety, negative moods, trouble sleeping…).
Fortunately, we can re-learn our natural way of breathing. And while it’s not a miracle cure or the answer to everything, the potential health benefits are so significant it’s no surprise that breathing features at the heart of many wellbeing practices, from yoga to meditation.
And gasp… it’s also free, requires no equipment and is available to us wherever we are!
1. The importance of correct breathing
Oxygen is essential to our wellbeing – every cell requires oxygen to function properly and can’t survive long without it. From digestion and detoxification of our immune system, breathing fully lets our cells and vital organs do what they do at maximum efficiency. Shallow breathing, on the other hand, taxes our body by pushing it to work harder and makes us more vulnerable to physical ailments.
Our mental wellbeing also gets a boost from proper breathing. Our brain functions best with a steady supply of oxygenated air which helps us stay more alert and focused and may also lift our mood.
2. The stress-breath connection
Stress and anxiety are best buddies with shallow breathing: the tightening, tension-inducing effects of stress cause shallow, quick breathing – and breathing this way makes it more difficult for us to relax again. But while we can’t avoid stressful situations, we can take steps to calm ourselves and break the cycle by consciously focusing on and changing our breathing. Slow, deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us relax and avoid a host of potential health problems.
3. Correct breathing, step by step
So how do we breathe correctly? The natural way of breathing is also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing (after diaphragm, the main muscle involved in breathing, which is located underneath the lungs): the belly rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation, while the chest stays relatively still. Natural breathing is also fairly slow and the lungs are completely filled and emptied with each breath.
If we’re used to shallow chest breathing, we may need to spend some time practising belly breathing. Making the change doesn’t need to be a huge undertaking, though: spend a little time everyday (maybe first thing in the morning and last thing before bed) focusing on your breath and adjusting as necessary, and repeat whenever you become aware of your breathing throughout the day.
Try these steps:
1. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly (this makes it easier to notice if we’re breathing with the chest or the belly)
2. Push your belly out with each inhalation and pull it in with each exhalation
3. Let your lungs fill in and empty out completely
With enough practise, breathing deeply with the belly should become effortless and automatic.
3. Breathe… as first aid for stress
Not only does correct breathing support our general wellbeing, but it’s also one of the best tools to get us over a those stressful humps during the day… There are plenty of breathing techniques to choose from when you want to induce some calm into the chaos of a busy day, but ‘tactical breathing’ is an easy one to remember. Used by the military and athletes to manage stress, the steps are super simple:
1. Inhale for a count of four
2. Hold for a count of four
3. Exhale for a count of four
4. Hold for a count of four
5. Repeat four times
Want to see tactical breathing in action? Belisa Vranich talks about the power of correct breathing and demonstrates her breathing technique in this TEDx Talk.1