The art of breathing is both innately simple and infinitely complex. Breathing is a critical function that both sparks and ends life. Yet there is so much more to the breath. Tune into the breath of someone having a carefree day and the breath is likely to be flowing freely. Tune into the breath of someone having a day of it, or in the grips of an intense emotion such as anger, and the breath is likely to be uneasy.
This blog is written by Bev Alderson from Practically Balanced, where she works with individuals, groups and workplaces wanting to take a more positive and proactive approach to enhancing wellbeing, and in turn achieving greater results.
If the mind and/or the body is struggling the breath will struggle, but if the mind and the body is at ease, the breath will be at ease too. The three are intimately connected.
So, does this mean that we can use the breath as a sort of barometer? Does it also mean that if we influence the breath, we can in turn influence the mind and the body? Yes, I think we absolutely can…
How breathing works
Let’s take a very simplistic look at the infinitely complex process of how breathing works.
The principle work of the breath is to bring in nourishing and energising oxygen, required by every cell in our body and to remove carbon dioxide, a waste product of the respiratory process.
How does it know how much oxygen we have and need, and how much carbon dioxide to get rid of? This is where the Medulla Oblongata comes in.
Located in the brain stem, the medulla oblongata is responsible for regulating many important and involuntary functions of the autonomic nervous system. These include cardiac and respiratory functions.
It is able to detect the exact amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels present within our system and works to regulate them. If we are running for a bus it will detect we need more energy, instruct our breath to up the pace and our hearts to pump faster to distribute it where it’s needed. Once we are settled on the bus, it will signal our respiratory and cardiovascular systems to take their foot off the gas.
The mechanics of breathing
The act of breathing utilises a dome-like muscle called the diaphragm – the main muscle associated with breathing.
On a breath in:
- Your diaphragm contracts and moves down
- Your stomach and lower back expand and relax to allow this to happen
- The space in your chest cavity increases, into which the lungs expand
- As your lungs expand, air is sucked in through your nose or mouth and makes its way into your lungs
- This air goes through branches in your lungs to fill up the alveoli, or air sacs
- Oxygen goes through the walls of the alveoli and into the capillaries, where the oxygen enters the red blood cells in each blood vessel
- The blood carries the oxygen to the heart
- The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to every cell in the body
On a breath out:
- As each red blood cell empties its load of oxygen, it picks up carbon dioxide from the cells and makes its way back to the lungs
- The carbon dioxide is carried by the red blood cells back to alveoli, ready to be expelled from the body when you breathe out
- To exhale your diaphragm relaxes and moves up
- Your stomach and lower back retract and contract slightly to enable this to happen
- The space in your chest cavity decreases. As the space gets smaller, air is forced out of your lungs through your nose or mouth
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? If only we, and life, didn’t get in the way!
We were all born knowing how to breathe and our medulla oblongata saying “we’ve got this”.
If you have ever watched a baby, or a puppy breathe, you will have seen them unashamedly breathe in and out of the belly. But somewhere along the way we are likely to have formed different breathing patterns and not for the better. Factors such as prolonged sitting, posture, and vanity can result in the muscles associated with breathing being held too tight – getting in the way of the respiratory system doing its job effectively.
Then there are the held in emotions, such as girls suppressing anger and boys the tears, which can again result in irregular breathing patterns. Not to mention good old stress that can see us puffing and panting our way through life at an erratic rate of knots.
Whatever the underlying reason, breathing patterns can form that result in:
- Ineffective inhaling limiting the volume of oxygen coming in.
- Ineffective exhaling not emptying the lungs fully or the body of carbon dioxide.
When the medulla oblongata detects that there is too much carbon dioxide or not enough oxygen in the body, it will signal the body to take another breath to try and balance this out. This can lead to a cycle of the body not exhaling completely or inhaling fully.
This phenomenon is known as chest breathing or shallow breathing. It is a breathing pattern that is robbing many people today of their optimal cell functioning and vitality.
5 signs you may not be breathing right
Shallow breathing patterns can creep up on us and be so subtle that we don’t notice it has become the new norm. Whilst there can be a number of factors at play, ineffective breathing interferes with the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body and can come with a number of symptoms. If you have concerns or are struggling with your breathing in anyway, I would of course recommend you seek the support and guidance of a health professional.
If you are simply curious or have minor concerns, let’s take a look at what might happen if the approximately 20,000 breaths we take each day are limited in some way?
- Your muscles feel tight
Shallow breathing relies on the muscles of the neck, shoulders and chest working hard to support respiration.
A 2014 study in Respiratory Care linked patients with neck pain with poor pulmonary function.
Muscular and skeletal issues aside, if you experience tightness or discomfort in the shoulders and neck, your breathing patterns may be the culprit.
- You have brain fog
The brain is believed to utilise about 20% of our intake of oxygen.
If it doesn’t get what it needs, the brain may slow down and become unfocussed, foggy even.
As the brain is responsible for regulating a number of functions in the body, it is not just the mind that will be impacted.
- You feel stressed
The breath speeds up and shallows in response to stress – preparing us to either run from danger or to face it. Part of the good old fight and flight mechanism.
Cast your mind back to when you last experienced a jump-scare – perhaps when watching a gripping thriller or a horror movie. You likely gasped or held your breath. Or felt your heart pumping in your chest to distribute your quickening breath.
The breath responds to threats, but is also an indicator as to whether danger may be present.
When the breath is heightened, a signal makes it way to the amygdala, part of the brain which is best known for its role as the alarm system for the stress response. Once the amygdala alarm is triggered – hey presto your fight and flight response is off and running.
Whilst the breath is only one indicator it is a key one. So much so that a study by the Stanford University in of California, published in Science, identified 175 brain cells that continuously spy on the breath and will alter our physical and emotional state accordingly.
- You feel nervous or anxious
There can of course be many reasons for feeling nervous and anxious, and I am certainly not intending to trivialise what can be a debilitating condition.
Whatever the underlying causes, an anxious body and mind is not a relaxed body and mind.
When anxiety is present tension will also be present and the breath short and fast.
The same can happen in reverse. Elevated breathing and tightness in the upper chest muscles can mimic stress, with feelings of nervousness and anxiety a bi-product.
It may be an interesting question to ask yourself if you feel uneasy, “Is my breath limited because I am feeling anxious, or, am I feeling anxious because my breath is limited”?
- You feel fatigued
Shallow breathing limits lung capacity and essentially robs us of one of the three types of fuel needed for energy and vitality – food, water, and oxygen.
Furthermore, when the body has to work harder to breathe, it makes sense that this requires more effort, more energy.
Add these two together and it can be one recipe for fatigue.
- You can’t sleep
Isn’t it ironic that we may be feeling fatigued but can’t sleep?
That feeling of being ‘tired yet wired’ can be a result of stress hormones left buzzing around from the day, leaving both the body and mind exhausted but too alert to rest and sleep.
It makes sense when you think about it – when we are facing danger, we need to be able to bypass our call to sleep.
Useful if you are facing the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger. Not so useful if you are trying to get the 8 hours of sleep opportunity, we each need to support a healthy body and mind.
- You may not be your best self
If stressed, anxious, tired, wired, lacking sleep and brain fog don’t amount to you being less than the ideal version of yourself, then there is more.
A study by staff from the University of Quebec and the University of Louvain, showed a direct link between emotions and breathing patterns. The study titled ‘Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion’ is included in the article change how you feel – change how you breathe.
The study involved two groups of volunteers:
Group 1 was asked to produce 4 emotions (joy, anger, fear, and sadness) using memory, fantasy and by modifying their breathing pattern. For each of the emotions, scientists monitored and analysed the various breathing components i.e. speed, location in the lungs, amplitude. They used their findings to draw up a list of breathing instructions.
Group 2 believed they were participating in the a study on the breath only. They were given the list of breathing instructions and asked to complete a 45-minute practice following the instructions. At the end of the session, participants completed a questionnaire which included their emotional responses.
The results were unmistakable and showed, to varying degrees, that the breathing patterns induced the anticipated emotional responses.
- You may not look your best self
If every cell in the body uses oxygen, then I guess that getting plenty of it will nourish all organs, including the skin. And not getting enough of it is likely to impact the way you look.
Ashley Neese makes a compelling case for utilising the breath, to help look our best self, in an article written for Vogue, ‘how to get better skin naturally’
Let the Breath be Your Guide
The breath is one of the bodily processes that can be done both unconsciously and consciously.
Below the realm of consciousness, we simply breathe.
However, when we bring our awareness to the breath, it can be a useful guide in understanding what may be happening in the mind and body and our responding breathing patterns.
The breath may shout when it gasps at a jump-scare, or under stress we are shallow breathing so intensely that we feel we can’t breathe.
The breath may whisper but, if we get quiet enough, we may observe when and how we subtly limit it.
Either way, when we understand what triggers our breath and how it responds, we have an opportunity to intervene. To influence the breath. To learn new patterns and practice new techniques that support our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
So how do we begin to get to know our breath more intimately?
Observing the breath at certain times of day can be a good place to start. You might like to pick 3 times in the day that you diarise to check in with the breath. Whatever works with your schedule and where you can safely observe your breath.
You might also like to check the breath out when you are feeling a strong emotion – like anger or utter contentment.
You might like to check it out now.
Once you have read the instructions below, close your eyes or soften their gaze to one point and simply watch your breath.
Ask yourself the following, or similar, questions:
- How does my breath feel now that I have drawn my attention to it?
- Does my breath feel at ease or does it feel a little challenging to breathe?
- Pay attention to the movement of the body in response to the breath. Is most of the movement in the chest or shoulders or is the belly moving freely?
- What can the breath tell you?
- Can you link it to what you have been doing?
- Can you link it to what you have been feeling?
Once we do this a few times it becomes quite natural and intuitive – a quick check in to see ‘where is my breath now’?
Yes, no and don’t know are all perfectly good responses!
If we can’t link the dots to something specific or the breath changes too quickly as we watch it, we just move on.
But sometimes we might observe something of interest …
- When I am concentrating on a task, I hold my belly in.
- When I feel nervous or anxious it feels challenging to breathe.
- My mind has been racing and my breath feels like it’s in my throat.
- When I start to relax, I feel the urge to take a deep jerky breath or am yawning lots.
- When I go for a walk after a busy day, I feel light headed.
All signs we may have been limiting the breath.
It’s no coincidence that many practices, such as yoga and mindfulness, utilise the breath.
The breath is a powerful and accessible resource that we all have access to. We can use it to reduce stress and anxiety, let go of tension, help us to relax and sleep, increase vitality and enhance the overall health of the body and mind. And it is completely free!
We don’t come to yoga and meditation to simply get good at yoga and meditation. We come so that we become better at applying their principles to daily life, whether the results are conscious or unconscious. It is the same principle with breathing exercises.
There are many breathing practices out there that we can use to influence the breath, and in turn our mental and physical state.
Below is a list of 10 of my favourites, in no particular order. It really is a case of picking one, or a few, that fit with your personal preferences and circumstances. These aim to:
- Establish healthy breathing patterns
- Enhance your oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange
- Positively influence the nervous system
- Reduce the way you breathe, impacting your mind or body negatively
- Relax the mind and body reducing tension, stress, and anxiety, and supporting sleep.
With all breathing practices it is important never to force or strain the breath, and pause or stop if you feel light headed or dizzy.
- Take a Deep Breath
Have you ever found yourself ranting when stressed, angry or anxious and been advised to “take a breath”? This is actually sound advice. When you take a deep breath in, your heart rate quickens. When you breath out fully, your heart rate begins to slow. Do this a few times and the two will begin to level out and sync – effectively breaking the cycle of shallow breathing that is likely to be accompanying your rant.
You may also start to feel things slow and calm down, and again there is good reason for this. By settling the heart and breath rates a signal is sent to the brain that all must be well. What it perceives as danger has passed. Endorphins are released which triggers a natural calming effect.
- Mindful Breathing
This simply involves observing the breath, perhaps focussing on the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils You do not need to try and change the breath but, by simply drawing your attention to it, you may observe that the breath naturally starts to slow and calm down. Resulting in you feeling everything slow and calm down too.
- A Breathing Triangle
You may come across, on social media, shapes that expand and retract you can follow with your breath? These are also great for slowing everything down and reconnecting with your breath. Here is one on YouTube you may like to try: A 1-minute breathing triangle
- A Breathing Visualisation
For those who can visualise images in their mind, you may like to picture a shape and move around it with your breath.
For example, you may like to visualise a square and as you inhale, visualise one side of the square, and as you exhale, visualise the next side of the square. Continue inhaling and exhaling your way around the shape a few times. Good for focussing the mind whilst restoring the breath and the internal equilibrium.
- Open Your Breath
Shallow breathing can create tightness in the upper aspects of the torso. This tightness can in turn limit the breath.
- Stand tall, lengthening your torso and the back of your neck, relax your shoulders and arms
- Now take your arms back so that you feel an opening in the chest and a gentle back bend being careful not to throw the head back
- Take a few deep breaths, sending the breath into the chest and the sides of the ribs
This may help to eliminate muscular tightness, soften the armour of the ribs and feel like you have opened up your breath.
- 4-7-8 Breathing
A popular breathing practice, developed by Dr Andrew Weil, that is believed to reduce stress, calm anxiety, and support sleep.
- Inhale through the nose to a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Breathe out through the nose to a count of 8
1 count refers to about 1 second. Repeat for a few rounds, as required.
- Belly Breath
As mentioned previously, lifestyle factors such as sitting, stress and perhaps a bit of vanity, can see us limiting the breath by holding the belly in. Deep abdominal breathing is our optimal way of breathing and one that positively elicits the relaxation response, the opposite aspect to the stress response. Here our mind and body work more optimally.
Here’s how to do it:
- Sitting, standing, or lying down with a lengthened spine, relaxed shoulders, and face. Close your eyes or gaze to one point
- Place your hands on your belly so that your middle fingers are touching
- Inhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly rises and the fingers separate
- Exhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly deflates and the fingers come back together
- Aim to do 5 – 10 rounds, or more
- 4 Count Breath
A great practice for bringing the nervous system down a notch or two, eliciting a deeper state and sensation of relaxation.
- Sit or lie with a lengthened spine, closing the eyes or gazing to one point
- Without changing the breath, start to count the length of the inhale and exhale
- You may notice that one is longer than the other and the first step is to work on evening them out. So, if you are inhaling for 4 counts can you also exhale for 4 counts. Take a few rounds to allow the breath to become even
- Now see if you can start to extend the exhale by adding one count to the exhale, so if you are inhaling for 4 counts can you extend the exhale to 5 counts
- Continue to slowly extend the exhale by 1 count, working towards the exhale becoming double the inhale
- The breath should not be forced and if the exhale doesn’t become double the inhale that is perfectly okay. Simply by extending the exhale you can obtain the benefits of the practice
- Do a few rounds before letting go of the count
- Allow the breath to return to a natural flow to complete the practice
- Full Diaphragmatic Breathing
3-part breath is an extension of belly breath and is the 5-star way of breathing.
It encourages the three chambers of the lungs to be filled and emptied with each breath – relaxing the mind and body, oxygenating the blood, and purging the lungs of residual carbon dioxide. It also works the diaphragm muscle.
Throughout the practice, aim to keep your breath at a natural and steady rhythm. It may lengthen and deepen naturally with each cycle but never force or strain the breath.
- Sitting or lying down with a lengthened spine, relaxed shoulders, and face. Close your eyes or gaze to one point
- Place your hands on your belly so that your middle fingers are touching
- Inhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly rises and the fingers separate.
- Exhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly deflates and the fingers come back together
- Breath in and out of your belly for 5-10 breaths without forcing or straining the breath
- Now move your palms to the sides of your ribs and notice how much movement the breath creates here?
- Continue to breathe into the belly but now expand the breath into this mid-chest region, allowing the rib cage to expand to the sides with each inhale and retract with each exhale
- Repeat for 5-10 breaths keeping the breath smooth and without strain
- Next bring your palms to the chest area, just below your collar bones
- Continuing to direct the breath to your belly and to your ribs, now expand the inhale to the upper chest, allowing the chest to rise with the inhale and fall with the exhale
- Continue breathing in this way, directing the inhale to the belly, ribs and chest
- Exhale from the chest, ribs and belly. Keep the breath smooth and without strain as you do a further 5-10 breaths cycles
- Release your hands to your sides and allow the breath to return to a natural flow to complete the practice
Remember that what we practice becomes more of a natural way of breathing – so the aim of this practice is to do more 5-star breathing in daily life.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing
In yogic philosophy, it is believed that this practice balances the logical left and emotional right sides of the brain. Different sides of the brain represent different characteristics, and when in balance these are meant to give a more balanced perspective.
Whether or not you believe that to be true, alternate nostril breathing is a phenomenal practice for helping the mind and body to calm down and to feel more in balance.
- Sit with an upright but relaxed posture and begin by settling into the breath.
- Here are the four steps to one round of the practice
- Close off your right nostril with your right-hand thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
- Close off your left nostril with your right-hand index finger and exhale through your right nostril.
- Keep your left nostril closed as is and Inhale through the right nostril.
- Close off your right nostril with your right-hand thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
- Continue with steps 1 to 4 for a few rounds keeping your shoulders and face relaxed. Start small and work up to doing a few minutes of the practice.
I hope that you found this blog interesting and informative.
I also hope that it inspires you to utilise the breath as a resource, to support your mental and physical wellbeing in daily life.
I would like to leave you with one of my favourite poems that, for me, encapsulates our relationship to the breath ‘The Breath as Life’s Teacher, by Donna Martin’ Each time I read it, I gain a new insight to my breath and perhaps it may do the same for you.
Bev Alderson is a Mindfulness, Yoga and Stress Management Consultant who works with individuals, groups and workplaces.
Having spent 18+ years in management in the IT industry, in both the UK and Australia, Bev learnt first-hand the impacts of a high-pressure environment and lifestyle and how, left unchecked, this can negatively impact performance and health.
Today, through her business Practically Balanced, Bev brings authenticity to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga and more.
Bev completed a Diploma in Yoga with the highly respected Qi Yoga School in Sydney in 2012 and with Sivananda in India in 2015. She also completed a Certificate in Stress Management with the London Centre for Coaching and Counselling in 2014, an ILM with the Stress Management Society in 2014 and a Diploma in Meditation with the British School of Meditation in 2016.
With many thanks to Bev for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Amanda via e-mail or phone:
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team