An Introduction to Proper Breathing
Outside of extreme circumstances, humans can survive without food for about three weeks. Without water, humans can survive almost a week (obviously this will change in extreme circumstances such as going through a desert). How long can humans survive without air? Brain damage begins within minutes of oxygen deprivation.
In today’s society there is often much emphasis placed upon the foods we eat and how much water we drink, which are very important don’t get me wrong; however there is often a lack of importance about breathing. On average, an adult human at rest takes about 20,000 breaths per day. With such a high rate of repetition for something so crucial to human life, it warrants discussing proper respiration.
A common trait that I often see in practice is that most people breathe predominantly through their mouth. A much more efficient way to breathe is both in and out through the nose, while keeping the lips together, teeth relaxed and apart, and tongue on the roof of the mouth. Re-read that last sentence and try incorporating all of those factors.
Nasal breathing has incredible advantages over mouth breathing. It warms, circulates, and moistens air. It filters debris and pathogens from reaching the lungs where they would cause damage. It allows for full breaths into the lower lobes of the lungs which helps increase oxygen saturation and uptake with to red blood cells for distribution throughout the entire body. It even helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” nervous system, helping to keep us calm. It promotes Nitric Oxide production, which helps to vasodilate, or open up blood vessels, allowing for more blood flow and oxygen delivery to tissues throughout the body. All of these wonderful things can be accomplished just by breathing in and out through your nose!
If you are new to breathing exercises, the first step is awareness. Just take note of how you currently breathe throughout your day. While driving, upon waking, as you fall asleep, during a stressful day at work, while on the computer, etc. The first step is awareness. Then, mindfully incorporate nasal breathing into all of these circumstances. This takes time and consistency, as most things do to improve. Once nasal breathing becomes more second nature, start to incorporate it into physical activity such as walking, jogging, running, and while working out. This will be more challenging with every step, but stay consistent.
Another key point of proper breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, which you may have also heard of as “belly breathing” or abdominal breathing. A test to see if you are breathing properly into your abdomen is to start by lying on your back. Place one hand on your chest (sternum) and the other on your belly button. Breathing in and out through your nose, take a normal-to-large inhale. During this inhale, pay attention to which hand moves more – the hand over your chest or over your belly button? Hopefully the hand over your belly button expands more. If the hand over your chest expands further, you are using mostly your rib cage and secondary muscles of respiration, which can contribute to neck and shoulder tension, jaw clenching, and anxiety – which is not what you want! Try to retrain yourself to breath predominantly into the lower hand over the belly button, and experience the many benefits of proper abdominal breathing. The next step to this exercise is moving both hands out to your sides / flank / “love handles” and then focusing on inhaling into your sides as well. This helps to support your spine as well as the other benefits of abdominal breathing we have mentioned.
A good breathing exercise to calm and center yourself is Box Breathing. Always inhaling and exhaling through the nose focusing on drawing air all the way into the lower belly / abdomen, inhale for a count of 4, hold the inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold the exhale for a count of 4, then repeat. This is a great simple introductory breathing exercise for awareness, relaxation, and oxygenation. There are many, many forms of breathing techniques out there to expand upon. Yoga is often good at incorporating breathing into movement practice.
I hope this information is useful and a good starting point for breathing awareness in your daily life. The importance of proper breathing for the human body is critical, and for some people can drastically improve their quality of life through something which we often take for granted. Just these simple exercises coupled with five minutes per day to quiet your mind by focusing ONLY on your breathing can also have profound effects on your mental and overall health.