Are you breathing efficiently?
Breathing is so fundamental to life you would think everyone would naturally do it efficiently – unfortunately this is not the case! Whilst our bodies are able to cope if we are breathing “ok”, if we learn to breathe at our optimum we can take in the maximum oxygen with the least amount of energy allowing our bodies to stay in a more relaxed state and function harmoniously.
What happens when we breathe in?
It’s helpful to think about what happens when we breathe. The upper ribs lift forwards and upwards while the lower ribs lift sideways, broadening the rib cage. The diaphragm (a dome-like muscle attaching to the lowest ribs) contracts and descends to increase the size of the lungs; As it does so it presses down and massages the abdominal organs, aiding digestion. This causes the abdominal wall to push forwards. Another important thing to note; when we breathe in the diaphragm contracts around the oesophagus preventing gastric reflux (heartburn). Therefore, a fully functioning diaphragm is essential to maintain a healthy body.
What is the best way to breathe?
Most people tend to use the upper ribs when breathing which uses a great deal more energy than using the lower ribs and diaphragm. The ideal breathing pattern is therefore to encourage the diaphragmatic breathing. If you observe a trained singer, you will notice that even when they take in a deep breath their shoulders do not seem to move. The purpose of the following exercise is therefore to develop better use of the diaphragm rather than the upper ribs.
Breathing Retraining – Step 1 – ‘Rate and Rhythm’
This exercise is a good starting point. It begins to train a slower breathing rate and can be helpful in reducing anxiety and stress. By concentrating on exhalation it also slows up the rate you lose carbon dioxide and helps the brain to reset and improve the control of your breathing.
Sit or lie comfortably and hold up a finger about 10 inches (25 cm) away from your mouth.
- Gently and slowly exhale through pursed lips (as if you are blowing through a narrow straw) so that you can feel a steady gentle airflow onto the finger.
- Pause for a count of one, and then inhale steadily through your nose.
- Without pausing to hold the breath, exhale slowly and fully again as before, again pausing for a count of one.
- Perform 30 breaths, and practice this in the morning and evening. If you feel light-headed during the exercise, stop blowing on your finger and relax. This is not unusual initially, but will improve with practice.
After some weeks of daily practice you should achieve an inhalation phase which lasts for 2 to 3 seconds, and an exhalation phase of 6 to 7 seconds without strain. Work on keeping your shoulders level as you breathe in. Try holding the chair that you are sitting to prevent your shoulders rising, or watch yourself in a mirror.
Step 2 – Full Abdominal breathing
When you feel more comfortable about the rate of your breathing it may be helpful to focus more specifically on where your breathing happens. The aim is to encourage slower abdominal breathing, where possible through the nose – this may initially feel uncomfortable or wrong.
The exercise can be performed in any position, but you may find it easier initially to perform it while lying down. Start by lying on your back, with one hand on your abdomen, allowing your body to relax for a minute or two.
Sense the movement of your abdomen, Try to take slightly deeper breaths, but do this by filling your abdomen rather than moving your chest. You will feel that the abdomen rises when you breathe in, and falls as you breathe out.
Sometimes people find that they mistakenly move in the opposite pattern. As they breathe in they suck their abdominal wall in, down towards their spine, and as they breathe out the wall is pushed out. If you find yourself doing this, relax and allow your breathing to settle to your normal rhythm. Rest for a minute or two and then try again. It may help to start by consciously pushing out your abdomen as you breathe in.
Once you have achieved the correct movement of your abdomen, try to breathe a little more deeply, trying to fill your abdomen with air. It’s important also that you dwell on the out-breath.
Aim to breathe about 12 times per minute. If you find you are breathing too fast, just relax again for a few minutes and then try again. If you feel breathless while trying to perform the exercise, relax again and think about something else for a few minutes and then repeat.
It is important to practice this regularly. Aim to do it a few times every day. As you feel more comfortable that you are performing it correctly, try doing the exercise in different positions, while standing, sitting, even walking. The eventual target is for your breathing to remain in an abdominal pattern even when you are not thinking about it.
For those who are over-breathing to the point where they are causing themselves any of the symptoms below, with regular practice of this exercise you should recognize a change in the level of symptoms and eventually eliminate them. For those who are merely breathing inefficiently, the outcome should be that you feel you have more energy.
Symptoms that may occur when over-breathing: (rarely all of these)
Breathlessness at rest for no apparent reason, frequent deep sighs or yawning, chest wall tightness, palpitations, cold hands and feet, light-headedness and feeling dizziness, tingling or numbness in lips or extremities/finger-tips, headaches, blurred vision, dry throat, heartburn; regurgitation, tightness around mouth, IBS, bloating from air swallowing, achy muscles /joints or even tremors, stiffness in fingers and arms, tiredness, weakness, broken sleep, nightmares, clammy hands and high anxiety level.
You may also benefit from osteopathic treatment to help release tension in the Diaphragm and the surrounding musculo-skeletal structures. We have had great results treating many problems related to the diaphragm. For any questions or to see if we can help, call now and speak with one of our registered osteopaths. 01206 579 777