For something that is happening 24/7, we rarely stop to think about our breath. When we do stop and take notice of it, it often has a habit of slowing down, centering us, and providing a moment of stillness. Maybe you happened to notice that your breathing was shallow and rapid, a sign of anxiety. Perhaps you noticed a tightening of the abdomen, which works to restrict the size and quality of breaths you take. Most of us walk around constantly tense and as result, short of breath. Our breath is one of the most powerful modulators of our physiology. From pain reduction, improved digestion, to more energy and focus, there are many benefits to learning how to breath functionally and how to alter our breath to promote different states. First, let’s dig into how you breathe.
We use specific muscles to breath. They are split into the primary and secondary groups. The primary are located lower on the body and include the diaphragm, intercostals, and abdominals. These muscles are generally longer and stronger than the secondary group, as they have to work constantly. The secondary group is made up of much smaller muscles that tire quicker. These are the scalene, trapezius, pectorals minor, and the sternocleidomastoid. Ideally, most of the action of breath (80%) should take place in the lower half of the body, with the upper half completing the last 20 percent of the breath. To see which muscles you are predominately using, put a hand on your stomach and a hand on your chest. Take a breath in. Which hand moved first? If your lower hand moved first, you are correctly using your diaphragm and abdominals. If the upper hand moved first, you are a chest breather.
Why does it matter which group of muscles we use primarily? Take a look at any infant lying on its back. Watch a baby breath and you will notice that its belly protrudes first with every breath, with a small rise in the chest at the end. That baby is belly breathing. It is using its diaphragm and abdomen to draw air in through the lungs, increasing lung capacity, and oxygenating the blood. Not only is the diaphragm key in taking full breaths, it is important in the functionality of our organs. As the diaphragm moves and expands, our organs are rolled, massaged, and bathed in fresh fluids, oxygen, and blood. Breathing correctly stimulates our entire body to work better.
If you are a chest breather, take notice of the tension in the upper body. The traps and shoulders will be working to draw air downward. It will feel as though you are shrugging dumbbells. This isn’t your fault, as our modern lifestyles have set us up to be constantly stressed and tense. Remember, stress is not only a mental game, it manifests physically as well. When we are in a constant state of stress from unnatural light exposure, high-sugar high-carbohydrate foods, and a myriad of other factors, our sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated. A temporary bodily response to stress such as disordered breathing quickly becomes a constant habit. This then manifests itself in constant tension, heart disease, chronic pain, fatigue, and more.
Most of us are in a constant state of abdominal and upper body tension. In our culture it is seen as more attractive to have near constantly sucked in abdominals. When we chronically tighten and suck in our abdominals, we are forced to slip into chest breathing patterns. Instead of the belly protruding with an inhale, the the belly often is already sucked in, preventing the diaphragm from descending completely and impacting blood flow to the digestive tract and heart.
Try this. Relax and release your shoulders and upper back. Allow your abdominals to swell outwards as you inhale. The chest should only rise in the last third of the breath. Notice the relaxed feeling in your upper body. Really try and feel this, as the more you take notice of the bodily feelings that accompany a full breath the more your body will fall into the habit. If you are one that has anxiety or is stressed out often, use the breath as away to get yourself out of your head. Notice when you are having racing thoughts, and notice the physical reaction of tension that comes with it. Just as anxious thoughts can cause tension, releasing that tension can ease the feelings of anxiety. Your body is telling you something wrong is happening. Learn to listen to it.
Start looking at your breath! Like I said before, disordered breathing is both a signifier of stress and a result from it. Taking a look and noticing when the secondary muscles are taking precedence over the primary. Feel the tension. Notice it. Reverse the pattern.
Thats it everyone. Leave any questions or comments down below!
Elliot Steele is a Primal Health Coach based in Chelan WA. He strives to empower those looking to regain their health after a lifetime of misinformed practices. This is the essence of Steele Back Your Health, to truly learn how to be healthy with sustainable habits. Check out the coaching and blog page for more info!