by Gil Magne and Robyn Edge
When was the last time you had to think about breathing? Breathing is subconscious, part of your brain is always telling your body to breathe. Like an app running in the background. We don’t have to think about it, it just happens!
Our lungs don’t move by themselves to breath. They rely on muscles to change pressure to pull in the air and push it out. This allows us to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.
There are different muscles helping us breathe and there are different ways of breathing. We can breathe from our belly or we can breathe from our chest. To breathe from the belly we use the diaphragm. The diaphragm attaches to the low back and the deep core muscles that provide our spine with stability. This connection forms the top and the sides of the core like a can. The bottom of this can is the pelvic floor. When they work well together these muscles give us stability and strength for our whole body. More pressure from the diaphragm means more stability and strength in our core. As an added benefit, it also decompresses the spine!
But, if you breathe from the upper chest, this can create a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders because those muscles are designed to move the neck or shoulder. Of course they get tired, tense, sore, stiff, achy if they are doing a job 24 hours a day that they are not designed to do AND trying to do their job at the same time. This leads to tension headaches, tight shoulders, limited spine movement and poorer posture.
Why would we breathe from the upper chest in the first place? In a stressful situation the body responds with a “fight or flight” reaction. For our ancestors, this used to happen when a lion jumped in front of us! In those situations, our body needs the most amount of oxygen to fight our way out or hightail it out of there! The body responds to stress from any source in the same way. Whether it’s a lion, bad traffic or a boss getting on our case, the same stress reactions in the body occur. If this stress is present on a regular basis, and we breathe from the upper chest, that can become our default pattern.
With practice, we can break the habit of improper breathing and retrain the diaphragm how to do it’s job again.
How do we change how we breathe? The first step is awareness. You can lay down on you back, put a hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Now notice what moves and when. When does the upper chest move and in what direction, how about the belly? We want the upper chest to be calm and the belly to rise when you breathe in and fall when you breathe out. Start in a relaxed position (lying on your back or stomach), and practice breathing with the diaphragm. Then progress to more challenging positions like sitting, standing, walking, while exercising. The more often you practice the belly breathing, the more carry over it has to how we breathe the rest of the day.
When we breathe in this way, it causes an increase in our intra-abdominal pressure. Our core muscles react by tightening up, which leads to improved stability in the spine. Athletes that lift weights use their breath to be able to lift even heavier. In yoga and stretching, the way we control our breath allows us to move further into ranges of motion. Controlling how we breathe as we do different exercises can give us an advantage when we perform them.
Our breathing is the foundation of our movement throughout the day. It sets the tone of our body and determines how we move and stabilize ourselves through our normal daily activities. Working on our breathing can have a significant effect on our aches and pains, how we move and what we are capable of doing.
Have you ever noticed that your breathing has affected how you move or what you can do? Let us know! What were you able to gain when you started incorporating your breathing control into exercises?