Importance of breathing correctly 

by David Culbertson

Breathing is one of the most innate, automatically performed bodily functions that we have as humans—so you might think, “how would it be possible to breathe incorrectly?” It is such a natural, unconscious function that when you stop to think about how you’re breathing, it’s easy to get out of rhythm and almost forget how to do it! However, there are different breathing techniques and not breathing with the proper technique can mean that you are not optimizing your health and potentially causing harm to your body. 

Adopting proper breathing technique takes practice—you can’t just decide one day to start breathing differently after a lifetime of breathing a certain way—there are yoga and meditation classes that teach proper breathing techniques and it is also possible to achieve via self-education. Proper breathing techniques involve breathing into the diaphragm or “belly breathing,” which not many people know how to do correctly. 

Problems with incorrect breathing

Incorrect breathing techniques include breathing through the mouth, chest breathing, holding your breath, hyperventilation (over-breathing) and shallow breathing. Unfortunately, most of us have adopted poor breathing habits due to learned habits and circumstantial factors. Poor breathing techniques can be the result of smoking habits, imitated learned breathing behaviors, poor posture, sitting for long periods of time, tense muscles and diaphragmatic weakness. The current techniques that most people use for breathing only allow them to breathe at 10-20 percent of their full breathing capacity—restricted breathing decreases respiratory function, which in turn decreases energy levels in the body and leads to sub-optimal health conditions. Your body and its cells need oxygen in order to survive and function, and when your body is getting less oxygen than what is optimal, health problems can begin to arise. Oxygen deprivation can be most detrimental to our brain, heart and muscles. When the brain is receiving less oxygen it will work slower, which in turn can affect all of the functions in the body that are regulated by the brain. When the heart begins to receive less oxygen, its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body decreases, which causes poor circulation in the body and the outer limbs may become cold and numb due to lack of circulation. Our muscles are also dependent on oxygen in order to function properly, and a lack of oxygen in the muscles makes them become stiff, tense and tire out faster—which has a negative effect on athletic performance. 

What is correct breathing technique?

Most people use the technique of “chest breathing” which means that they take shallow breaths into their upper abdomen, usually through the mouth. This type of shallow breathing technique will cause the upper chest to rise and fall with each breath—the air never fully reaching the lower lungs or the diaphragm. Breathing correctly involves using the nose and the diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation—not the mouth or the chest. The most optimal way to breathe is to breathe through the nose and into the diaphragm, which is known as “belly breathing,” and then back out through the nose. It is important to breathe in and out of the nose and not the mouth because the nose has the ability to filter the air that is going into your lungs, whereas the mouth cannot. Inside of the nose are tiny hairs called cilia that filter, humidify and warm or cool the air before it enters the lungs—protecting the lungs from harmful particles, viruses, bacteria and harsh temperatures. Our mouth is not equipped with this protective feature for our lungs, and so when we breathe air in and out of our mouth, we put ourselves at risk of inhaling what is in that unfiltered air into our lungs. Breathing in and out through the nose also allows us to take fuller, deeper breaths, which allows for the lungs to distribute a greater amount of oxygen throughout the body—contributing to an optimized state of physical health. To breathe correctly, you should always be breathing air into your diaphragm—it is the primary muscle that is used during respiration, and as any other muscle, it can become weakened if you don’t regularly engage it. When you inhale using your diaphragm, the air will travel all the way to your lower lungs an d diaphragm, making your stomach expand and rise rather than your chest rising and expanding when practicing shallow, chest breathing techniques. When you exhale after inhaling the air into our diaphragm, your stomach should fall and contract after all of the air is pushed out through your nose—it is important to fully empty the lungs of the air that you inhale in order to remove toxins and optimize oxygenation in the body. It is important to understand how to take a deep breath using your diaphragm versus using your upper chest. 

Benefits of diaphragmatic breathing

If you regularly breathe with your chest, don’t engage your diaphragm during breathing and are in good health, you might think, “Why should I change how I breathe?” Well, you should adopt a diaphragmatic breathing technique and ditch chest breathing, because breathing with your diaphragm in and out of your nose has several advantages and can optimize your health in a way that chest breathing cannot. One of the largest benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is that it helps our respiratory system to work more efficiently by allowing more oxygenation of the body—deeper, more efficient breathing will decrease the work of breathing by slowing the breathing rate, decrease oxygen demand by optimizing the oxygen that is taken into the body and using less effort and energy to breathe than chest breathing. Another benefit of diaphragmatic breathing is that it relieves stress and tension in the body, allowing your muscles and body to relax. During chest breathing, your chest, neck and shoulders are always engaged and in tension, rising and falling—switching to belly breathing allows these areas of your body to let go of tension and stress. Utilizing the diaphragm to inhale and exhale deep breaths engages the parasympathetic nervous system—the system that allows our body to relax. This deep, diaphragmatic breathing will relieve stress in both the body and the mind. Diaphragmatic movement during breathing also stimulates the release of natural toxins in the body by massaging the stomach and other organs of digestion. Engaging the diaphragm during breathing also encourages better posture, it is not possible to be hunched over at a desk and correctly inhale into your diaphragm—you have to sit up tall with good posture for the air to be able to flow into your lower lungs and diaphragm.

How to train yourself to breathe correctly

Initially, the easiest way to learn how to engage your diaphragm during breathing is to do the following procedure: 

  1. Lie flat on the floor or on a bed, couch, etc.
  2. Relax your shoulders and your body.
  3. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
  4. Breathe in through your nose for a couple of seconds and consciously let the air flow into your lower abdomen, allowing your stomach to expand without moving your chest outwards.
  5. Exhale the air back out through your nose and let your stomach fall back to its original position. 

During this procedure, the hand on your chest should stay as still as possible as your chest should not rise or fall during inhalation and exhalation using the diaphragm. If you felt that the hand on your chest was the one that was rising during inhalation, or rising along with the hand on your stomach—you may have weak diaphragmatic muscles, but this is an exercise that can be performed regularly to strengthen your diaphragmatic muscles. 

Practices such as yoga and meditation can be highly useful for adopting mindful breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing. They teach you to become more aware of your breathing and how to become more in tune with your body, and yoga can also be helpful for strengthening and engaging the muscles needed for deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Regularly practicing correct breathing techniques can lead to better physical and mental health by optimizing the functions of the respiratory system and letting go of stress and tension involved in traditional chest and mouth breathing techniques.

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