We all breathe all the time, but do we know how to breathe properly? Take a normal breath in and then exhale. How much air are you taking in? Dancers, actors, meditators, swimmers, athletes and yogis all work consciously on their breathing as it is vital in order to perform well. Every time you breathe, you nourish your body and brain, so it’s very important to understand the health implications of not breathing properly and how this impacts on your emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.
Most people breathe from their chest and this contributes to neck and shoulder tension, because you are constantly using the muscles in the top half of your body that are not intended for breathing. Breathing from the lower half of your body – known as belly breathing which involves the bottom half of your ribcage moving and your belly expanding – is reminding your body of how it is designed to work. To effectively combat stress, you need to breathe in this way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka your body’s relaxation response).
In addition to its calming physical effects, activating your body’s relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. With regular practice anyone can reap these benefits.
Why has our breathing become inefficient?
Why has our breathing become inefficient? Stress – we’re constantly rushing, multi-tasking, overthinking, overdoing it and feeling overloaded. We do everything fast: we walk faster, eat faster, talk faster and we age faster! Consequently our breathing is constantly in fast mode, it’s shallow and quick. This has terrible health repercussions because every cell in your body needs oxygen, therefore many illnesses are caused or made worse by a lack or imbalance of oxygen. Breathing from your chest underutilises your diaphragm so that your exhalation becomes very passive and instead of using your exhalation muscles, you simply let the air out. Even though it may feel normal for you to breathe this way, it becomes dysfunctional because the exchange of oxygen to carbon dioxide is out of balance. You could inhale more fresh air if you exhaled all the stale air out more fully each time.
Sub-optimal breathing contributes to:-
Cognitive problems ~ less oxygen = concentration difficulties and memory problems.
Emotional problems ~ depression and anxiety are worsened by shallow breathing.
Acidity and inflammation ~ increase in and longer duration of pain.
Spinal health ~ using incorrect muscles to breathe causes neck & shoulder tension.
Low energy ~ shallow breathing delivers less oxygen to the cells, leading to cells having to prioritize survival over growth and repair.
Hypertension ~ breathing badly constricts blood vessels which can lead to higher blood pressure which in turn makes the heart work harder.
Digestive difficulties ~ breathing muscles stimulate peristalsis, the wave-like motion of the intestines that promotes digestion and elimination. Without this internal abdominal massage, symptoms such as constipation, bloating, gas, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome increase.
Poor sleep ~ shallow breathing switches on your sympathetic nervous system (aka ‘fight or flight’ response) which impairs deep sleep.
Teach yourself how to belly breathe
Breathing correctly leads to better oxygenation and also works your core more efficiently leading to stronger muscles. Teach yourself how to belly breathe using the lower half of your body to expand in a subtle 3-dimensional way on the inhalation – feel the bottom half of your ribcage, your lower abdomen, the sides of your waist and lower back all expanding and learn to contract those muscles a lot more when expelling all the old stale air out when you exhale. Simply practicing mindful belly breathing little and often throughout the day will remind your how to breathe properly, and by changing your breathing you will be able to improve your wellbeing and learn to control stress – not let it control you.