Are You Breathing Right?

“Breathing is the first and last thing we do” Deepak Chopra

It sounds silly to remind you that breathing is important. Obviously, breathing is the single most important thing we do. We will only last around 3 minutes without it. However, if you think your body is ticking along nicely, breathing correctly all by itself, I can tell you from my experience it most probably isn’t. A correct breathing pattern will improve digestion, sleep and increase strength while reducing stress and anxiety.

So what’s the problem with my breathing?

Picture how a baby breathes. If you can't have a quick look on YouTube.

A baby’s upper body will be soft and relaxed, you'll notice its abdomen rise and fall with the breath. This is often called diaphragmatic breathing. No one has told the baby to do this, it’s natural.

Now take some time to be aware of your own breath.

More than likely you will notice your chest and shoulders rise and fall as you breathe with little movement in the abdomen. Your breath will probably be shallow and therefore slightly faster. If a baby were to breathe this way it would most likely be in need of emergency treatment!

Robert M. Sapolsky speaks in detail in his fantastic book, "Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers" about breath and its connection to our current health epidemic, stress.

Sapolsky explains that when we are put under stress our body responds with a shallow, faster breathing pattern. This means the accessory muscles in our neck and shoulders will do the work rather than the deeper postural muscles and so you see the chest move with the breath rather than the belly. This is often called emergency breathing.

This faster shallow emergency breathing pattern allows more oxygen into the blood, signalling the brain to switch to a sympathetic nervous response. The body will then release a collection of stress hormones, perfect to prepare it for its fight or flight response to the stressor.

As every so often, our ancestors were bound to come across some type of hungry jungle cat. The body’s natural stress response would give us the best possible chance of fighting it with extra alertness and strength or the chance to run away faster with those stress hormones pumping through our blood.

The problem is that in our current society which now resembles a human zoo (office jobs, social disconnection, convenience food, instant messaging, unnatural footwear, sedentary, indoor existence) has us under stress all day long. The body can only respond to stress in one way, be it bumping into a jungle cat or equally ferocious boss who has his own hungry agenda.

Every traffic jam, deadline, alarm clock, work, family or social pressure sends us into an emergency breathing stress response. For our still primal body it’s like bumping into a hungry jungle cat around every corner. Over time, we get so used to our emergency breathing pattern that we get stuck that way. With the added problem of poor posture and the fact that we sit down most of the day we forget to breath low and wide using the diaphragm even when we should be safe and at rest.

I know this is the case because when I start training a new client 8 times out of 10 that is how they will breathe. I’m not a scary beast! I also wear a tracksuit so don’t blame it on the white coat syndrome.

It’s this faulty breathing pattern that is heavily contributing to many of our health implications which doctors are happy to dish out pills for such as blood pressure, digestive problems, anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms. As we know long term stress is a killer.

Relearn to breath

"Once you own your breath no one can steal your peace" 

Although breathing is a natural reflex that is subconscious it can be controlled and trained like any other skill. Relearning to breathe should take priority over everything else!

Tim Anderson in his book "Becoming Bullet Proof" calls this technique crocodile breathing.

Lay on your belly and rest your forehead on the back of your hands. Inhale though your nose sending the breath low into the belly. You should notice your belly push into the floor causing your back to rise a little. The sides of your belly will also get wider like a crocodile. Now allow your body to let go of your breath, letting it out through your nose or mouth.  Don’t worry about the speed of your breath just keep it natural and notice a short pause between the inhalation and exhalation. Most people don’t get it straight away. Depending how deeply ingrained the emergency breathing pattern has taken hold it can take some practice. Try practising for 5 minutes a day until you get it.

Once you have got the crocodile breathing, transition to standing.
Do exactly the same breathing technique, in through your nose and into the belly which is often called diaphragmatic breathing. You can practice throughout the day while standing in a shopping queue, in traffic or while walking. You’ve cracked it when you can do it while in an intense meeting or negotiation.

Diaphragmatic breathing will massage the internal organs aiding digestion. As the diaphragm works with the pelvic floor it will also keep the core responsive and strong. The deeper breathing will allow extra carbon dioxide into the blood stream bringing a feeling of calmness. As you become aware of your breath and therefore more aware of your body your will likely feel more centred too. This will make you perform better in almost all of our human zoo scenarios.


Breathe into the shield for increased strength

Once my personal training clients have retrained their bodies back into diaphragmatic breathing I often introduce a new technique to improve strength and protect the back when lifting weights. Uechi-ryu karate practitioners call it “breathing into the shield”.  

The idea is to use the breath to stabalise the spine when under load or applying force. Think of a bottle of fizzy drink. Shake it up and the internal pressure builds making the bottle feel solid. This is what you want to happen to your midsection to keep it as safe as possible while lifting heavy things, be it kettlebells or your mate's sofa.

Begin by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth. As the tongue is neurological connected to the diaphragm and has a strong influence on how the body moves it’s worth this simple adjustment. Next and just as with the diaphragmatic breathing, breathe in through your nose and into the belly. The difference is with breathing into the shield you hold the belly still, not allowing it to inflate. You will then feel a pressure build which feels like a corset around your mid-section. As you breathe out, brace your belly as if preparing for a punch in the stomach.

This means you have two phases of stability for your midsection. The fizzy drink bottle style pressure as you breath in and the brace like tension as you breath out. The shield! 

Try it when lifting next and you'll notice your strength increase quite quickly.

If you have any comments or questions please leave them in the section below.