Sub-optimal breathing can contribute to and even cause a variety of health problems. Better breathing can be regained quickly, even in long-term cases.
Practice every day for 5 minutes. Ideally, five minutes in the morning or for five minutes just before you go to sleep.
Regular practice creates awareness; during the rest of the day you will notice when your breathing becomes erratic.
What’s going on?
Poor breathing is where the chest is used to breathe, rather than the abdomen.
You need to do all regular breathing with your abdominal diaphragm. This is a large muscular sheet separating the thoracic cage (which contains the heart and lungs) from the abdominal and pelvic cavities.
This diaphragm can do all the work of quiet breathing on its own.
As it contracts, it pulls down towards the stomach and enlarges the thoracic cavity.
This causes a drop in pressure, allowing air to flow into the lungs.
At the start of the out-breath, we relax the diaphragm muscle. The size of the thoracic cavity decreases, the pressure inside increases, causing the stale air to be effortlessly expelled from the lungs.
So breathing in is an active process, and breathing out is a passive process.
The tummy should appear to inflate on proper in-breathing because the descending abdominal diaphragm squashes the abdominal organs (actually, they like this). Watch how a sleeping cat breathes.
Only when we need to breathe in more deeply should we use rib, neck and back muscles to further enlarge the thoracic cavity.
In normal breathing, the chest should hardly be seen to move.
Proper breathing enables the diaphragm to act as a powerful ‘second heart’.
Unfortunately, improper breathing is an easy habit to develop. When this happens, the diaphragm remains unused, becoming either slack and weak (like our tummy muscles) or hypertonic and dysfunctional (like tight muscles in the neck).
Weak breathing can also start following a trauma. For example, a car accident or surgery.
The stages of breathing
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 through the nose or the slightly open mouth.
A useful exercise
Lie on your back with your legs straight. Let your hands rest comfortably on your abdomen, just below the belly button. Close your eyes. Relax your neck. Breathe in smoothly, feeling your hands rise, with your chest relaxed, for 2 seconds. If your hands do not rise (or even go down), and you think 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.
This two-seconds in, six-second hold, four-seconds 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, and 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. This means I breathe once a minute!
Use your folded hands to get ‘bio-feedback’ from your tummy. Frequently remind yourself to relax ribs and neck, letting the breath flow smoothly straight through the chest and down into, and out of, the stomach.
When you feel able to, take longer in-breaths, but only if you can keep it smooth and even.
There are many and varied ways of altering and fine-tuning this 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 real physical and mental benefits.