There is a lot to learn, a lot of nuance to master in order to have superior breathing at rest. It’s a bit frustrating that this is so, because isn’t this suppose to be something we do naturally? I mean, our body takes care of breathing automatically, without having to pay attention to it. So why then would we have to think about it so much?
I am persuaded by the theory that our modern lifestyle has wrecked many of the natural patterns which were better at keeping us in optimal physical form. Now we have to unlearn many habits our lifestyle of physical ease has created and relearn some of those ancient-yet-superior ones. Breathing is one of those. Poor breathing is tied into so many of the diseases we are encountering earlier in life and killing us sooner. The importance of better breathing is under-appreciated and under-promoted, while it is the easiest health intervention we have.
A Simple Way To Start Breathing Better
There are different ways we can breathe – the body is marvelously capable of adapting the breath to all sorts of body positions and states of excitation. It is good that the body can breathe in so many different ways. But for most of the time, when we are at rest (or should be at rest) we need to be breathing in one particular way: diaphragmatic breathing. This is where the diaphragm below the lungs is expanded downward into the soft part of the abdomen to open the bottom part of the lungs, rather than pushing outward and upward into the thoracic cavity.
Before you even try to breathe in, it helps to practice exhaling first, because it is easier for most people to activate the diaphragm on the exhale thus making it more obvious how to inhale the same way in reverse.
Exhale from the bottom side of the lungs, by squeezing upward from below the ribs, as if you are trying to suck your guts up into your upper chest. Try squeezing all the air out of your lungs. Then, when you finish squeezing all the way, just let go. Do not try to inhale. Just let go and the relaxing diaphragm will drop, causing the area around the lungs to expand, which then pulls air into the lungs without any additional effort.
The most obvious way to get you to inhale in the right direction is to give the instruction to breathe so that the belly pushes out – the ‘beer belly’ or the ‘buddha belly’ breathing style – and to avoid having the chest rise while you do it. That is a first approximation to what all needs to be happening for a really good diaphragmatic breath, but not all.
Licensed images used by permission from 123rf.com
Let me call your attention to the various dimensions in which the breath can expand downward. You may try 4 or 5 repetitions of each of these quickly, right there while reading this…
Inhale in such a way as to push outward on the belly. That’s the common direction.
Inhale in such a way as to push outward on the sides of your waist. You might put your hands on your waist to feel it better, both outside and in.
Inhale in such a way as to push back against the lumbar spine (without moving the spine – just feel a little pressure build against the inside surface of it)
Inhale in such a way as to push down against the pelvic floor (or what a college buddy called the ‘hard to rinse spot’ of the crotch).
When the diaphragm pushes down and outward in all of these directions you get both better breathing and better spine stabilization (there is more to that spine stabilization part) and better stimulation for digestion and other lower organ function.
In ideal diaphragm contraction the entire diaphragm pushes down into the abdominal cavity and can be observed by an expansion of the lower ribcage and the abdominal wall in all directions. (Hans Lindgren DC in the article Core Stability from the Inside-Out)
Those are ways to experience the directions in which diaphragmatic breathing works. You could just cycle through those focal points many times in order to build awareness, control and strength.
And, while you do these exercises, use only your nose to exhale and inhale, unless you are instructed to exhale from the mouth (perhaps with pursed lips) for certain kinds of internal core-tensioning exercises.
Posture and Position Matter
When you are breathing at rest while laying, sitting and standing, posture matters. The head is positioned over the shoulders, how the shoulders are positioned, how the back is aligned, how the hips are leveled – all these affect breathing, and breathing affects these parts of the body.
I want to point you to an good primer abdominal breathing with posture from Coach David Shen which combines both posture and breathing and how they interact with each other.
Breathing At Rest Before Breathing At Work
Keep in mind that we’re only at rest during part of our day. We should be moving a lot, working the whole body in a variety of ways throughout the day, throughout the week, regardless of whether we do any athletic training in addition to that. Moving the body in different ways, experiencing different loading will affect how the body is positioned, and may require a more study of how to breathe with those movements.
We could study ergonomics for good body position while working at a desk. We could study good body position while doing various kinds of loaded exercises in the gym. We could study good body position while practicing martial arts or dance. All good forms of instruction in these would also involve instruction on breathing in those postures and movement patterns.
However, before you go to study better breathing in your favorite sport, it may go so much better if you first study better breathing at rest, for laying down, sitting and standing and develop a strong habit for this. You can practice this in moments throughout every day. This would gradually lay a foundation until your body is preferring this way of breathing, and then it will be searching for a better breathing pattern to accompany whatever sport or movement art you are taking on.
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