Breathing: the essentials

22 Jan

First off, you may be thinking 'how could breathing ever be done wrong?'
Well, it's not so much wrong as it is inefficient.

Secondly, breathing right is not a magical cure for pain and anxiety and the like, but let me tell you: if you're not breathing correctly you're not on your way to recovery.

Now, I'm not going to get into the anatomy of breathing, you can pick up an anatomy text book like the Marieb Human Anatomy and Physiology for that. What I will discuss is how and why we get into poor breathing habits and what you can do about it.

Why the bad habits?

How or why we get into poor breathing habits is anyones guess. It could be anxiety, soft tissue trauma, emotional trauma, learned traits and habits from others, the list could go on.

What's important is knowing you're doing it.

Ineffective breathing is mostly when we shallow breath and don't use our diaphragm (in our abdomen) to breath. Instead we can get into a habit of breathing through our mouths and using our upper chest and neck muscles to breath.

This is called upper chest breathing, or hyperventilation.

It's common in those who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety or are highly strung. I think unless you've paid attention to your breathing before, you may be an upper chest breather and not know about it. *Gasp!*

I don't hyperventilate!

A person doesn't need to be sitting there wheezing as if they've had a bucket load of spiders and centipedes poured on them to be classed as hyperventilating.

Just breathing through the mouth and upper chest, even if seemingly calm, can still result in hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is the act of breathing out excessively, i.e., releasing too much CO2.

Recall ever blowing up balloons for a party and just feeling whoozy afterwards. That's hyperventilating. Mouth breathing, using only your upper chest to breathe  has the same effect.

Whats so bad about that?

> Upper chest breathing is labour intensive.
> It creates tension and stiffness in your neck muscles.
> Shallow breathing means we are only using the top part of lungs to breath, meaning less oxygen for energy.
> Our breath become shorter and faster, causing us to feel more stressed.
> We breathe off more CO2 than we should be, changing our bloods pH level.

Blood pH level?

Again, I'm not getting into the science of it here (it'd cause us all great anxiety). If you like science try looking up Leon Chaitows book  or read up on the Bohr effect.

Basically, when you ventilate (or breathe off) too much CO2 you create respiratory alkalosis (making your blood too alkaline).

This induces a stress response
> Can create muscle spasms
> Smooth muscles cells (your organs and blood vessels) constrict, reducing blood supply to the brain.
> Dizziness, poor concentration and stress levels rise.
> Because of the Bohr effect there is reduced oxygen to the cells, tissues and brain. This can create fatigue and pain. 

There is more, but effectively what I'm trying to say is:

Shallow upper chest breathing/mouth breathing = not good.

What can be done about it?! Magic pill? Detox? Snake oil?

No, no and no! None of those things are real. Except maybe snake oil.

Just breathe normally, and naturally. Follow this exercise below and practice it every day!

Breathing exercises

To breathe properly your diaphragm must pull down on the inhale breath and push up on the exhale breath (paradoxical breathers will do the opposite!).

Your stomach pushes out on the inhale and squashes in on the exhale.

Lie on your back, comfortably on the floor, or bed. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. This helps to give sense and awareness to your breath.

Imagine your lungs a glass and the air water, you want the “glass” to fill from bottom Up.
Gently, through your nose, take in a breath. Allow your stomach to rise up as the “glass” begins to fill.
As the hand on the stomach lifts then allow the chest to expand, noting the hand on the chest rising.

Make your exhale, or out breath, slow and controlled. Let the stomach fall first then the chest. Breathing out through the nose.

Stomach rise, chest rise; stomach fall, chest fall. In; out. Through the nose (the nose helps warm the air and stops you from venting too much CO2).

As you do this concentrate on controlling the breath, and then let it fall into its own natural rhythm. The breath may be shallower but it will be more steady, more fluid. More natural and easy, not forced.

Try doing it wrong!

Through your mouth inhale, only allowing the chest to rise. Do this a few times.
Notice how labour intensive this is and almost stressful it feels?

Go back to the other way; it’s much nicer.

Breathing exercise 4,6,8

A breathing technique for sleep or calm.

> 4 second in breath

> 6 second hold

> 8 second out breath

Now, 8 seconds is a long time. So it can be shorter but it needs to be at least 5 seconds out. The exhale is important, it’s the calming breath, as in when you go “aaah”. A long exhale tells the body that we have time to breath, that we're not being chased. We can breath slow and controlled and not fast and hard as if we're fleeing or fighting.

Count the seconds with your breath. If your mind begins to flood with thoughts, let them in but let them pass. You’re just there happily counting breaths, the thoughts can do as they please. And they will go as long as you breath and count.

Breathe and count. Through the nose. Fill up the glass. Let it out slow.

Can massage help?

Why, what a great question! Yes it can!

Massage therapy can help you relax, easing anxiety. Massage can also be targeted to reducing tension and dominance of the breathing accessory muscles. Trigger points in the diaphragm or intercostal muscles (the yummy meat in between ribs) can be addressed, allowing the muscle to work properly again.

Through massage, breathing exercises and maybe just the right amount of meditation, you can be back to breathing right, feeling less stressed and being in less pain.

AdvanceNMT can help with breathing training and massage of the muscles that help you breath.

Chris is a fully trained massage therapist, registered with Massage New Zealand
he has two diplomas in therapeutic and clinical massage therapy and a certificate in relaxation. 
Chris works from the historical Orewa House on the Hibiscus Coast and with the team at Lifestyles NMT in New Lynn, Auckland.

Book a massage now