Poor breathing can contribute to and sometimes cause a wide variety of health problems. Proper breathing can be regained relatively quickly, even in long-term cases.
You can’t breathe properly straight away. You need patience and to apply your intelligence to get the best results. Practice every day for 5 minutes. Ideally, five minutes in the morning, but certainly for five minutes just before you go to sleep while you are lying in bed. Don’t worry if you fall asleep doing them. Hopefully, regular practice like this will mean that during the rest of the day you become more aware, and are able to correct yourself when you fall into poor breathing habits.
Poor breathing is where the chest is used to breathe, rather than the abdomen.
A fundamental concept is that you need to do all breathing with your abdominal diaphragm, which is an extensive muscular sheet that separates the thoracic cage (containing the heart and lungs) from the abdominal and pelvic cavities. This diaphragm can do all the work of regular quiet breathing on its own.
As it contracts (which is what it should do if you are correctly breathing in) it ‘pulls’ down towards the stomach and enlarges the thoracic cavity that contains the lungs. This causes a drop in pressure, such that air flows into the lungs. As we ‘relax’ the diaphragm (when we breathe out) the muscle goes back up, the size of the thoracic cavity relatively decreases, the pressure inside increases, and air is effortlessly expelled from the lungs.
So breathing in is an ACTIVE process, and out is a PASSIVE process. The tummy should appear to inflate on proper in-breathing because the descending and contracting abdominal diaphragm is squashing our abdominal contents (which – by the way – is another good thing). Only when we need to breathe in more deeply should we also use rib, neck and back muscles to further enlarge the thoracic cavity. In normal breathing, the chest should hardly be seen to move.
Done right, breathing enables the diaphragm to act as a powerful ‘second heart’.
Unfortunately, improper breathing is an easy habit to develop, and the diaphragm then remains unused, either slack and weak (like our tummy muscles!) or hypertonic and dysfunctional (like the tight muscles in our neck, for example). Poor breathing can also start, and remain stuck, following a trauma (e.g. accident, surgery and so on).
There are four stages of breathing. These are the in-breath, the hold, the out-breath, and the slight pause. Breathing in is always done through the nose. Breathing out can be done either via the nose or the slightly open mouth.
Lie on your back with your legs straight. Let your hands rest crossed comfortably on your abdomen, just below the belly button. Close your eyes. Relax your neck. Breathe in smoothly, feeling your hands rise, and your chest remains relaxed, for 2 seconds. If your hands do not rise (or even go down!), and you feel you are breathing into your chest, then relax and keep trying. Visualise the tummy rising as you breathe in and eventually it will happen.
Hold the breath for 6 seconds. Then breathe out, by relaxing the tummy, so that your hands come back down, for 4 seconds.
Notice that this 2 seconds in, 6 hold, 4 out is a ratio of 1:3:2.
Every transition should be smooth with no sudden gulps or rushed breaths. Be patient and wait for your tummy to ‘move on its own’. Focus your mind only on the breathing, on your abdomen and on what you are feeling – nothing else. When you feel able to, increase the 2-6-4 ratio described above to 3-9-6 or 4-12-8 and so on. When I practice this exercise, I do 10:30:20 – so I breathe once a minute! No problem at all, I assure you.
Use your folded hands to give you ‘bio-feedback’ from your tummy, and frequently remind yourself to relax ribs and neck, letting the breath flow smoothly straight through the chest down into, and out of, the stomach. Again, when you feel able to, take ‘deeper’ in-breaths, but only if you can keep it smooth and even.
There are many and varied ways of altering and fine-tuning the above breathing pattern. These include the use of ‘locks’ (which are ways of increasing intra-abdominal pressure during the hold breath phase) and alternate nostril breathing. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, some of these refinements may be a good idea.
But the core exercise is surprisingly useful and has definite physical and mental benefits.