The Importance & Benefit of Proper Breathing
Purpose of Breathing
It seems like a silly question doesn’t it. To ask – why do we breathe? But most of us ignore the true purpose of breathing and just do it without conscious control. If we take control of our breathing we benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally. So, this article discusses the physiology and anatomy of breathing, the diseases of the respiratory tract, the physical benefits of proper breathing, and the spiritual aspects of controlled breathing. We can become more effective (smarter), more efficient (healthier), more connected (supported), and more self-controlled (calm/relaxed) people through proper breathing.
The purpose is to inhale the positive energy and oxygen and exhale negative energy and carbon dioxide. Nourishing the soul and feeding the body its most essential nutrient, oxygen. While also removing harmful chemicals from the system and reducing the overall acid content (carbonic acid formed from a build-up carbon dioxide) in the blood. This acid build-up is the leading cause of inflammation that is the leading cause of disease.
What is Breathing?
Breathing (or respiration, or ventilation) is the process of moving air into and out of the lungs to facilitate gas exchange with the internal environment, mostly by bringing in oxygen and flushing out carbon dioxide. All aerobic creatures need oxygen for cellular respiration, which uses the oxygen to break down foods for energy and produces carbon dioxide as a waste product. Breathing, or “external respiration”, brings air into the lungs where gas exchange takes place in the alveoli through diffusion. The body’s circulatory system transports these gasses to and from the cells, where “cellular respiration” takes place.
Breathing has other important functions. It provides a mechanism for speech, laughter and similar expressions of the emotions. It is also used for reflexes such as yawning, coughing and sneezing. Animals that cannot thermoregulate by perspiration, because they lack sufficient sweat glands, may lose heat by evaporation through panting.
Over-breathing (hyperventilation) and under-breathing (hypoventilation), which decrease and increase the arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide respectively, cause a rise in the pH of ECF in the first case, and a lowering of the pH in the second. Both cause distressing symptoms.
During heavy breathing (hyperpnea) as, for instance, during exercise, exhalation is brought about by relaxation of all the muscles of inhalation, (in the same way as at rest), but, in addition, the abdominal muscles, instead of being passive, now contract strongly causing the rib cage to be pulled downwards (front and sides). This not only decreases the size of the rib cage, but also pushes the abdominal organs upwards against the diaphragm which consequently bulges deeply into the thorax. The end-exhalatory lung volume is now less air than the resting “functional residual capacity”. However, in a normal mammal, the lungs cannot be emptied completely. In an adult human there is always still at least one liter of residual air left in the lungs after maximum exhalation.
Diaphragmatic breathing causes the abdomen to rhythmically bulge out and fall back. It is, therefore, often referred to as “abdominal breathing”. These terms are often used interchangeably because they describe the same action.
When the accessory muscles of inhalation are activated, especially during labored breathing, the clavicles are pulled upwards, as explained above. This external manifestation of the use of the accessory muscles of inhalation is sometimes referred to as clavicular breathing, seen especially during asthma attacks and in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Physiology of Breathing
Respiratory tract diagram – By Lord Akryl – http://cancer.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10296586
Respiratory tract – part of the anatomy of the respiratory system involved with the process of respiration. Air is breathed in through the nose or the mouth. In the nasal cavity, a layer of mucous membrane acts as a filter and traps pollutants and other harmful substances found in the air. Next, air moves into the pharynx, a passage that contains the intersection between the esophagus and the larynx. The opening of the larynx has a special flap of cartilage, the epiglottis, that opens to allow air to pass through but closes to prevent food from moving into the airway.
From the larynx, air moves into the trachea and down to the intersection that branches to form the right and left primary (main) bronchi. Each of these bronchi branch into secondary (lobar) bronchi that branch into tertiary (segmental) bronchi that branch into smaller airways called bronchioles that eventually connect with tiny specialized structures called alveoli that function in gas exchange.
The lungs which are located in the thoracic cavity, are protected from physical damage by the rib cage. At the base of the lungs is a sheet of skeletal muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm separates the lungs from the stomach and intestines. The diaphragm is also the main muscle of respiration involved in breathing, and is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
The lungs are encased in a serous membrane that folds in on itself to form the pleurae – a two-layered protective barrier. The inner visceral pleura covers the surface of the lungs, and the outer parietal pleura is attached to the inner surface of the thoracic cavity. The pleurae enclose a cavity called the pleural cavity that contains pleural fluid. This fluid is used to decrease the amount of friction that lungs experience during breathing.
The respiratory tract is divided into the upper airways and lower airways. The upper airways or upper respiratory tract includes the nose and nasal passages, paranasal sinuses, the pharynx, and the portion of the larynx above the vocal folds (cords). The lower airways or lower respiratory tract includes the portion of the larynx below the vocal folds, trachea, bronchi and bronchioles. The lungs can be included in the lower respiratory tract or as separate entity and include the respiratory bronchioles, alveolar ducts, alveolar sacs, and alveoli.
Hair in the nostrils plays a protective role, trapping particulate matter such as dust. The cough reflex expels all irritants within the mucus membrane to the outside. The airways of the lungs contain rings of muscle. When the passageways are irritated by some allergen, these muscles can constrict.
The trachea is the largest tube in the respiratory tract and consists of tracheal rings of hyaline cartilage. It branches off into two bronchial tubes, a left and a right main bronchus. The bronchi branch off into smaller sections inside the lungs, called bronchioles. These bronchioles give rise to the air sacs in the lungs called the alveoli.
The lungs are the largest organs in the lower respiratory tract. The lungs are suspended within the pleural cavity of the thorax. The pleurae are two thin membranes, one cell layer thick, which surround the lungs. The inner (visceral pleura) covers the lungs and the outer (parietal pleura) lines the inner surface of the chest wall. This membrane secretes a small amount of fluid, allowing the lungs to move freely within the pleural cavity while expanding and contracting during breathing. The lungs are divided into different lobes. The right lung is larger in size than the left, because of the heart’s being situated to the left of the midline. The right lung has three lobes – upper, middle, and lower (or superior, middle and inferior), and the left lung has two – upper and lower (or superior and inferior), plus a small tongue-shaped portion of the upper lobe known as the lingula. Each lobe is further divided up into segments called bronchopulmonary segments. Each lung has a costal surface, which is adjacent to the ribcage; a diaphragmatic surface, which faces downward toward the diaphragm; and a mediastinal surface, which faces toward the center of the chest, and lies against the heart, great vessels, and the carina where the two mainstem bronchi branch off from the base of the trachea.
The alveoli are tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange takes place. The mean number of alveoli in a human lung is 480 million. When the diaphragm contracts, a negative pressure is generated in the thorax and air rushes in to fill the cavity. When that happens, these sacs fill with air, making the lung expand. The alveoli are rich with capillaries, called alveolor capillaries. Here the red blood cells absorb oxygen from the air and then carry it back in the form of oxyhaemaglobin, to nourish the cells. The red blood cells also carry carbon dioxide (CO2) away from the cells in the form of carboxyhemoglobin and releases it into the alveoli through the alveolor capillaries. When the diaphragm relaxes, a positive pressure is generated in the thorax and air rushes out of the alveoli expelling the carbon dioxide.
The respiratory epithelium, which varies in composition throughout the tract. There are glands and mucus produced by goblet cells in parts, as well as smooth muscle, elastin or cartilage. Most of the epithelium (from the nose to the bronchi) is covered in ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium, commonly called respiratory epithelium. The cilia beat in one direction, moving mucus towards the throat where it is swallowed. Moving down the bronchioles, the cells get more cuboidal in shape but are still ciliated.
The epithelial lining of the upper respiratory tract is interspersed with goblet cells that secrete a protective mucus. This helps to filter waste, which is eventually either swallowed into the highly acidic stomach environment or expelled via spitting.
The epithelium lining the respiratory tract is covered in small hairs called cilia. These beat rhythmically out from the lungs, moving secreted mucus foreign particles toward the laryngopharynx upwards and outwards, in a process called the mucociliary escalator. In addition to keeping the lower respiratory tract sterile, they prevent mucus accumulation in the lungs.
Macrophages in the alveoli are part of the immune system which engulf and digest any inhaled harmful agents.
Glands are abundant in the upper respiratory tract, but there are fewer lower down and they are absent starting at the bronchioles. The same goes for goblet cells, although there are scattered ones in the first bronchioles.
Cartilage is present until the small bronchi. In the trachea they are C-shaped rings of hyaline cartilage, whereas in the bronchi the cartilage takes the form of interspersed plates. Smooth muscle starts in the trachea, where it joins the C-shaped rings of cartilage. It continues down the bronchi and bronchioles, which it completely encircles. Instead of hard cartilage, the bronchi and bronchioles are composed of elastic tissue.
The muscles of respiration are those muscles that contribute to inhalation and exhalation, by aiding in the expansion and contraction of the thoracic cavity. The diaphragm and, to a lesser extent, the intercostal muscles drive respiration during quiet breathing. Additional ‘accessory muscles of respiration’ are typically only used under conditions of high metabolic demand (e.g. exercise) or respiratory dysfunction (e.g. an asthma attack).
- The diaphragm is the major muscle responsible for breathing. It is a thin, dome-shaped muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the thoracic cavity. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts, so that its center moves caudally (downward) and its edges move rostrally (upward). This compresses the abdominal cavity, raises the ribs upward and outward and thus expands the thoracic cavity. This expansion draws air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, elastic recoil of the thoracic wall causes the thoracic cavity to contract, forcing air out of the lungs. The diaphragm is also involved in non-respiratory functions, helping to expel vomit, feces, and urine from the body by increasing intra-abdominal pressure, and preventing acid reflux by exerting pressure on the esophagus as it passes through the esophageal hiatus.
- The intercostal muscles are one of the most important groups of respiratory muscles. These muscles are attached between the ribs and are important in manipulating the width of the rib cage. There are three layers of intercostal muscles. The external intercostal muscles are most significant in respiration. These have fibers that are angled obliquely downward and forward from rib to rib. The contraction of these fibers raises each rib toward the rib above, with the overall effect of raising the rib cage, assisting in inhalation.
- “Accessory muscles” refers to muscles that assist, but do not play a primary role, in breathing. There is some controversy concerning which muscles may be considered accessory muscles of inhalation. However, the sternocleidomastoid and the scalene muscles (anterior, middle and posterior scalene) are typically considered accessory muscles of breathing. Both assist in elevating the rib cage. The involvement of these muscles seems to depend on the degree of respiratory effort. During quiet breathing, the scalenes are consistently phasically active, while the sternocleidomastoids are quiet. With an increase in the respiratory volume, sternocleidomastoids also become active. Both muscles are simultaneously activated when one breathes in at the maximal flow rate. Apart from the above neck muscles, the following muscles have also been observed contributing to respiration: serratus anterior, pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, iliocostalis lumborum, quadratus lumborum, serratus posterior superior, serratus posterior inferior, levatores costarum, transversus thoracis, subclavius (Kendall et al., 2005). Use of the accessory muscles while at rest is often interpreted as a sign of respiratory distress.
- Muscles of exhalation – During quiet breathing, there is little or no muscle contraction involved in exhalation; this process is simply driven by the elastic recoil of the thoracic wall. When forceful exhalation is required, or when the elasticity of the lungs is reduced (as in emphysema), active exhalation can be achieved by contraction of the abdominal wall muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external oblique muscle and internal oblique muscle). These press the abdominal organs cranially (upward) into the diaphragm, reducing the volume of the thoracic cavity. The internal intercostal muscles have fibers that are angled obliquely downward and backward from rib to rib. These muscles can therefore assist in lowering the rib cage, adding force to exhalation.
Ailments Affecting Breathing – Many conditions can make you feel short of breath:
- Lung conditions such as asthma, emphysema/COPD, cancer, or pneumonia
- Problems with your trachea or bronchi, which are part of your airway system
- Heart disease can make you feel breathless if your heart cannot pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body
- Anxiety and panic attacks
Lung cancer – Some of these cancers have environmental causes such as smoking. When a tobacco product is inhaled, the smoke paralyzes the cilia, causing mucus to enter the lungs. Frequent smoking, over time causes the cilia hairs to die and can no longer filter mucus. Tar from the smoke inhaled enters the lungs, turning the pink-colored lungs black. The accumulation of this tar could eventually lead to lung cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common lower respiratory disease that can be caused by exposure to harmful chemicals, or prolonged use of tobacco. This disease is chronic and progressive, the damage to the lungs is irreversible and eventually fatal. COPD destroys the alveoli, and lung tissue which makes breathing very difficult, causing shortness of breath, hyperventilation, and raised chest. The decreased number of alveoli causes loss of oxygen supply to the lungs, and an increased accumulation of carbon dioxide. There are two types of COPD: primary and secondary. Primary COPD can be found in younger adults. This type of COPD deteriorates the air sacs, and lung mass. Secondary COPD can be found in older adults who smoke or have smoked and have a history of bronchitis. Older terms for COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Asthma: The bronchi are the main passages to the right and left lungs. These airways carry the oxygen to the bronchioles inside the lungs. Inflammation of the bronchii and bronchioles can cause them to swell up, which could lead to an asthma attack. This results in wheezing, tightness of the chest and severe difficulty in breathing. There are different types of asthma that affect the functions of the bronchial tubes. Allergies can also set off an allergic reaction, causing swelling of the bronchial tubes; as a result, the air passage will swell up, or close up completely.
Bronchial disorders can make it hard for you to breathe. The most common problem with the bronchi is bronchitis, an inflammation of the tubes. It can be acute or chronic. Other problems include
- Bronchiectasis – a condition in which damage to the airways causes them to widen and become flabby and scarred
- Exercise-induced bronchospasm – a breathing problem that happens when your airways shrink while you are exercising
- Bronchiolitis – an inflammation of the small airways that branch off from the bronchi
- Bronchopulmonary dysplasia – a chronic lung condition in infants, most often premature infants
Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs. Many germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can cause pneumonia. You can also get pneumonia by inhaling a liquid or chemical. People most at risk are older than 65 or younger than 2 years of age, or already have health problems. Symptoms of pneumonia vary from mild to severe. See your doctor promptly if you
- Have a high fever
- Have shaking chills
- Have a cough with phlegm that doesn’t improve or gets worse
- Develop shortness of breath with normal daily activities
- Have chest pain when you breathe or cough
- Feel suddenly worse after a cold or the flu
Fear and anxiety are part of life. You may feel anxious before you take a test or walk down a dark street. This kind of anxiety is useful – it can make you more alert or careful. It usually ends soon after you are out of the situation that caused it. But for millions of people in the United States, the anxiety does not go away, and gets worse over time. They may have chest pains or nightmares. They may even be afraid to leave home. These people have anxiety disorders. Types include
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It causes panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of terror when there is no real danger. You may feel as if you are losing control. You may also have physical symptoms, such as
- Fast heartbeat
- Chest or stomach pain
- Breathing difficulty
- Weakness or dizziness
- Feeling hot or a cold chill
- Tingly or numb hands
Panic attacks can happen anytime, anywhere, and without warning. You may live in fear of another attack and may avoid places where you have had an attack. For some people, fear takes over their lives and they cannot leave their homes. Panic disorder is more common in women than men. It usually starts when people are young adults. Sometimes it starts when a person is under a lot of stress. Most people get better with treatment. Therapy can show you how to recognize and change your thinking patterns before they lead to panic. Medicines can also help.
Allergy – Also called: Hypersensitivity; An allergy is a reaction by your immune system to something that does not bother most other people. People who have allergies often are sensitive to more than one thing. Substances that often cause reactions are
- Dust mites
- Mold spores
- Pet dander
- Insect stings
Normally, your immune system fights germs. It is your body’s defense system. In most allergic reactions, however, it is responding to a false alarm. Genes and the environment probably both play a role. Allergies can cause a variety of symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, itching, rashes, swelling, or asthma. Allergies can range from minor to severe. Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction that can be life-threatening. Doctors use skin and blood tests to diagnose allergies. Treatments include medicines, allergy shots, and avoiding the substances that cause the reactions.
Signs and Symptoms of Poor Breathing Habits
Many common aches and pains, particularly around the head, neck and shoulders, may be caused in part by inefficient breathing. Problems like chronic headaches, numb and tingling hands, neck pain, or upper back pain might actually caused by a respiratory issue. The breathing exercises that might help are tedious and unappealing, but they are worthwhile regardless of whether or not they actually solve any painful problems. If it exists, the connection between dysfunctional breathing and pain is straightforward in principle: if the diaphragm doesn’t do its job well, muscles in the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and throat (sternocleidomastoid and scalenes) will try to help out. Unfortunately, these muscles aren’t built for routine respiration, and they get exhausted and tender (more on how this works below). If this occurs, it could trigger a cascade of uncomfortable consequences over time.
Chronic upper chest and neck breathing presumably exhausts and then eventually damages the emergency breathing musculature, causing a list of bad news: exercise gets more difficult, and the risk of both acute and chronic injuries and painful conditions in the neck and shoulders increases dramatically — especially whiplash injuries.
Chronic overuse of the scalenes and other respiratory helpers may lead to their “injury” in the form of metabolically exhausted and painful patches of muscle tissue known as “trigger points.” This article leans heavily on this idea, and yet it’s questionable — some experts dispute the existence or nature of trigger points, and even if they do exist, no one actually knows if they are caused by chronic muscle overuse.
Assuming that trigger points are a factor, their intensity can range from mild to crippling. “Sick” muscles like this feel rotten and don’t do their job well: the more you’ve worn out your neck and chest muscles trying to breathe without your diaphragm, the more likely you are to have a problematic upper body posture and lousy mechanics of the shoulder and spinal joints, which leads to yet more injuries.
Fatigue and/or trigger points and poor posture might cause and/or aggravate many other problems:
- A significant portion (probably more than half) of all upper back pain is caused by problems in the neck.
- Shoulder tendinitises.
- The more exhausted your neck muscles, the more a whiplash injury is going to hurt, and the longer it’s going to take to heal — in many cases, people never really heal at all.
- Frozen shoulder, a condition in which the shoulder joint mysteriously seizes up. While it is a strange condition whose ultimate cause is not known, it seems likely to me that it is at least aggravated by respiratory and upper body postural dysfunction.
- “Cricks” in the neck, most of which are probably caused by small mechanical problems in the spine (known as minor intervertebral derangements, or MIDs) that can cause days or weeks of painful protective spasm and months of stiffness.
- Ringing in the ears and other hearing and balance problems. Troubled sternocleidomastoid muscles are presumed by many massage therapists to interfere with hearing, balance, and to cause tinnitus (ringing) either directly or indirectly via effects on the muscles of the jaw.
- Numbness and pain in the entire arm can be caused by a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), in which nerves and blood vessels that supply the arm are impinged by two specific muscles — two muscles that also happen to be the most abused respiratory muscles — pectoralis minor and scalenes!
Eight reasons that people don’t breathe diaphragmatically – If breathing diaphragmatically was good enough for Buddha and is a key to vitality, why doesn’t everyone do it?
- Smoking, as mentioned above, along with any medical condition that makes breathing labored. There are quite a few of those.
- Monkey see, monkey do — no one else breathes well, so we don’t. Shallow breathing is part of a pattern of postural and movement habits that we start imitating when we are infants.
- Most of us are too vain to be comfortable with sticking our gut out. Gut sucking-in is probably the most popular postural habit in the world, and of course that habit strengthens as we age.
- Breathing is emotionally stimulating and expressive, and many people avoid this as carefully as they steer clear of pot bellies.
- A life lived mostly in chairs — with the hips flexed to 90˚ and the belly compressed from below — makes diaphragmatic breathing a little bit mechanically difficult. (And, of course, excessive sitting is unhealthy in quite a few other ways.)
- Rather than a limitation of diaphragmatic breathing, the problem may be trying too hard to do it with the throat muscles: rat-racey stress tends to manifest in muscular tension high in the body: face, jaw, neck and shoulders. A churning, tense belly is another common feature of emotional stress.
- This is a big one: diaphragmatic weakness. Once this strength is lost, it’s difficult to regain. It is one thing to be out of the habit of breathing abdominally (at age ten, say) and quite another to have lost the diaphragmatic strength and coordination for it (by age twenty-two, for instance). It’s not like you can’t breathe without strong diaphragmatic contraction — it’s just more difficult. So perhaps the most insidious reason that people don’t breathe with their diaphragms is simply because they can. Most people would rather stick with an understated respiratory style rather than work harder. They can get away with it — for several years anyway — so they do.
What is Proper Breathing?
- The full use of the abdominal and intercostal muscles with each breath.
- The full contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm.
- Fully erect (straight) spine with shoulders back and chin parallel to the floor.
- Inhaling through the nose, using cilia and mucosal epithelium in nose and sinuses to clean, moisturize, and warm the air before it reaches the lungs.
- Exhaling through the mouth, leaving behind moisture and taking out more toxins.
The Metabolic Control – The respiratory center in the brainstem is responsible for controlling a person’s breathing rate. It sends a message to the respiratory muscles telling them when to breathe. The medulla, located nearest the spinal cord, directs the spinal cord to maintain breathing, and the pons, a part of the brain very near the medulla, provides further smoothing of the respiration pattern. This control is automatic, involuntary and continuous. You do not have to consciously think about it.
The Behavioral Control – Breathing is most unique as compared to other visceral (e.g. digestion, endocrine cardiovascular) functions in that it can also be regulated voluntarily. The behavioral, or voluntary control of breathing is located in the cortex of the brain and describes that aspect of breathing with conscious control, such as a self-initiated change in breathing before a vigorous exertion or effort. Speaking, singing and playing some instruments (e.g. clarinet, flute, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) are good examples of the behavioral control of breathing and are short-lived interventions (Guz, 1997). As well, the behavioral control of breathing encompasses accommodating changes in breathing such as those changes from stress and emotional stimuli. The differentiation between voluntary and automatic (metabolic) breathing is that automatic breathing requires no attention to maintain, whereas voluntary breathing involves a given amount of focus (Gallego, Nsegbe, and Durand, 2001). Gallego and colleagues note that it is not fully understood how the behavioral and metabolic controls of respirations are linked.
Pranayama breathing is often performed in yoga and meditation. It means the practice of voluntary breath control and refers to inhalation, retention and exhalation that can be performed quickly or slowly (Jerath et al., 2006). As such, yoga breathing is considered “an intermediary between the mind and body (Sovik, 2000).” In many yoga stories and literature, the word ‘prana’ (part of the word ‘pranayama’ for breathing) refers to the ‘life force’ or energy. This has many applications, especially as it relates to the energy producing processes within the body. There is a direct connection between the ‘prana’ or energy of breathing and its effects on energy liberation in the body. Cellular metabolism (reactions in the cell to produce energy) for example, is regulated by oxygen provided during breathing. The yoga purpose of breath training is not to over-ride the body’s autonomic systems; although there is clear evidence that pranayama breathing techniques can affect oxygen consumption and metabolism (Jerath et al., 2006). In fact, much of the aim of pranayama breathing appears to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its sympathetic (excitatory) dominance. Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders (Jerath et al., 2006). Jerath and colleagues add that investigations regarding stress and psychological improvements support evidence that pranayama breathing alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological profile.
It is interesting to also recognize that there are several different types of breathing common to yoga, including the complete yoga breath (conscious breathing in the lower, middle, and upper portions of the lungs), interval breathing (in which the duration of inhalation and exhalation are altered), alternate nostril breathing, and belly breathing to name a few (Collins, 1998, Jerath et al., 2006). It is also equally worthy to observe that breath awareness was originally developed to the movements being done by the yogi to achieve the joining of the mind, body, and spirit in search for self-awareness, health and spiritual growth (Collins). Collins points out that some of the breathing techniques utilized with yoga postures are more complex to learn (for some people) and often require independent practice outside of the postures themselves. Although numerous studies show clinically beneficial health effects of pranayama breathing, some studies show that fast breathing pranayama can cause hyperventilation, which may hyperactivate the sympathetic nervous system, stressing the body more (Jerath et al., 2006). Thus, some breathing pranayama techniques may be contraindicated for those with asthma.
Breath Awareness and Yoga: Making the Connection – In order to maintain awareness on breathing and to reduce distractions, yoga participants use comfortable postures with the eyes closed. The outcome of mastering this breath control is that an individual can voluntarily use these practices to ease stressful or discomforting situations. Yoga participants learn how to deal with distractions and stress without having an emotionally stimulating physiological response. They practice doing this by first recognizing whatever the distraction or thought may be, and then returning or restoring the focus of attention back to breathing (Sovik, 2000). The re-focus centers on the thoughts “I am breathing” (Sovik). Yoga enthusiasts also use ‘asanas’ or specific postures with pranayama breathing, linking the movement or body position with the breathing. Jerath et al. (2006) state that more research is needed to understand how the combined approach of breathing and asanas elicit beneficial health outcomes.
Optional Breathing: Activating the Diaphragm – The everyday experiences of breathing for most untrained individuals is much more inconsistent than one would assume. Practices in yoga often first teach individuals to observe their own breathing to ultimately familiarize the student with the sensations of respiration. Thus, one meaningful aspect in learning breathing techniques is the awareness in the difference in smooth, even breathing to erratic breathing. Modifications in respiratory patterns come naturally to some individuals after one lesson, however, it may take up to six months to replace bad habits, and ultimately change the way one breathes (Sovik, 2000). The general rule, often noted in studies, and particularly observed by Gallego et al. (2001) was that if a voluntary act is repeated, “learning occurs, and the neurophysiological and cognitive processes underpinning its control may change.” Gallego et al. continue that while some changes can be made, the need for longer-term studies is warranted to better understand the attention demanding phases involved with these breathing changes.
Developing Good Breathing Habits
Considering we’ve been breathing since we were born, you’d think we’d all be pros at it. But bad breathing habits can deny your body of the oxygen it needs and leave you vulnerable to illness and stress. Take this short quiz to see if you’ve developed bad breathing habits.
Time yourself for one minute, breathing as you normally would, and count your breaths. How many breaths did you take in one minute?
- 14 to 16
- More than 16 or fewer than 14
Place one hand on your upper chest. Put the other hand on your belly above your waist. Breathe in slowly through your nose. What do you feel?
- The hand on my belly moved up, and the hand on my chest stayed put.
- The hand on my chest moved up, and the hand on my belly lowered.
Repeat the steps from number 2 and then breathe out slowly through pursed lips. What do you feel?
- The hand on my belly lowered.
- The hand on my belly moved up.
Breathe as you normally would. Are you…
- breathing in through your nose?
- breathing in through your mouth?
If you answered “a” to most of the questions, you’re a healthy breathing pro! Healthy breathing habits help to keep your body properly oxygenated and working efficiently. If you answered “b” to any of the questions, you could use some breathing lessons. Bad breathing habits can leave you vulnerable to infections and make it harder to deal with stress.
Here’s a simple two-step process to assess your own breathing:
Lay one hand on your chest and the other on your belly as you breathe normally. Notice which area rises as you inhale and by how much. In a complete inhalation, your chest will rise first. followed by your belly as the diaphragm contracts, pushing down into the abdominal cavity. Next, lay your hands along the sides of your ribcage. Do your hands separate as they ride apart from each other on your inhalation?
Healthy Breathing Habits
- Breathe through the nose all the time including while eating, speaking and exercising. Don’t do anything faster than you can do it breathing with your nose.
- Maintain an upright posture. Keep the airway vertical and open.
- Breathe into the diaphragm, not the chest. Think of the breathing action as originating from the diaphragm muscle under the ribs, not the nose.
- Breathe with a regular, predictable pattern of steady, similar-sized breaths. Minimize disruptions such as sighing, yawning, coughing, throat clearing or breath holding followed by a big breath.
- Breathe like a baby breathes: silently, gently and invisibly. Strong gusts are abrasive to the airway.
- Breathe 8-12 breaths per minute. Unless it’s an emergency, slower light breathing is better than fast breathing.
- Match breathing to activity. When resting, breathe gently using all the principles listed above.
- During exercise, breathe heavier as needed, then cool down the breathing like you would cool down your muscles to transition back to the rest state.
- Allow breathing to happen without expending energy. Exhale completely but not forcibly. Practice inhaling and exhaling without controlling it.
- Practice relaxation of muscles and thoughts. Tension requires more air. Stop negative thoughts. Think thoughts that engender positive feelings. Embrace instead of defend.
- Increase comfortable breath-hold time intentionally after you have mastered all the other habits.
To improve your breathing efficiency try the exercises below. After each exercise, notice if there are any changes to your mental, emotional or physical state. Rest for a few moments, breathing normally afterwards to avoid dizziness or lightheadedness that sometimes results from the fresh oxygen rush to your brain.
- Take a slow, deep, complete breath in. Allow your chest to rise first, then expand your rib cage and finally let your belly rise.
- As you exhale, release the air in the opposite order: First your belly lowers, then your rib cage contracts and finally your chest lowers.
- Repeat for three to five breath cycles.
- Lie down or sit with your back against a wall or chair. Bring your attention to your breath.
- For three rounds of breath, notice the expansion and contraction of your body to the front and back as you inhale and exhale. Feel a slight increase in pressure against your back as your body expands into the surface you are leaning against.
- Let go of the front/back focus and draw your attention now to the sideways or lateral expansion of your ribs and torso for three breaths.
- Let go of the lateral focus and now take three breaths noticing as the inhalation rises all the way up to your collarbone at the top and pushes the diaphragm down into your belly at the bottom.
- Finish by taking three full breaths while focusing on all three dimensions simultaneously — front/back, left/right and up/down.
Alternate-Nostril Breathing: To balance your energy, calm yourself and clear your mind, try alternate nostril breathing.
- Gently close your right nostril by placing your right thumb against the side of your nose.
- Inhale fully through your left nostril.
- Hold the breath in momentarily while you close your left nostril with your right middle finger.
- Lift your thumb and exhale through your right nostril. Pause.
- Inhale through your right nostril. Close both nostrils and hold briefly.
- Lift your middle finger and exhale through your left nostril. Pause.
- Repeat this pattern beginning with an inhale through your left nostril (step 2).
- Repeat for three to ten rounds of breath.
Pain-Release Breath: This technique relieves tension, tightness and discomfort.
- Bring your attention to an area of your body where you feel pain or are holding stress.
- Visualize the area of discomfort by giving it a color, shape or texture.
- Breathe in gently and fully, imagining that the breath is going directly to the chosen area. As you exhale, visualize the area of stress shrinking as the discomfort is carried away on the exhale.
- Continue to take cooling, soothing breaths into the pain, watching the area of stress grow smaller and lighter with each exhalation.
Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less
- Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing” – How it’s done: Balance can do a body good, beginning with the breath. To start, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four (all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath). Got the basic pranayama down? More advanced yogis can aim for six to eight counts per breath with the same goal in mind: Calm the nervous system, increase focus, and reduce stress. Anytime, anyplace—but this is one technique that’s especially effective before bed.
- Abdominal Breathing Technique – How it’s done: With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, take a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. The goal: Six to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day to experience immediate reductions to heart rate and blood pressure, McConnell says. Keep at it for six to eight weeks, and those benefits might stick around even longer. When it works best: Before an exam or any stressful event. But keep in mind, “Those who operate in a stressed state all the time might be a little shocked how hard it is to control the breath,” Pacheco says. To help train the breath, consider biofeedback tools such as McConnell’s Breathe Strong app, which can help users pace their breathing wherever they are.
- Progressive Relaxation – How it’s done: To nix tension from head to toe, close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, glutes, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes—all while maintaining deep, slow breaths. Having trouble staying on track? Anxiety and panic specialist Dr. Patricia Farrell suggests we breathe in through the nose, hold for a count of five while the muscles tense, then breathe out through the mouth on release. When it works best: At home, at a desk, or even on the road. One word of caution: Dizziness is never the goal. If holding the breath ever feels uncomfortable, tone it down to just a few seconds.
- Nadi Shodhana or “Alternate Nostril Breathing” – How it’s done: A yogi’s best friend, this breath is said to bring calm, balance, and unite the right and left sides of the brain. Starting in a comfortable meditative pose, hold the right thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue the pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. When it works best: Crunch time, or whenever it’s time to focus or energize. Just don’t try this one before bed: Nadi shodhana is said to “clear the channels” and make people feel more awake.
- Guided Visualization – How it’s done: Head straight for your happy place, no questions asked. With a coach, therapist, or helpful recording as your guide, breathe deeply while focusing on pleasant, positive images to replace any negative thoughts. When it works best: Pretty much any place you can safely close your eyes and let go (e.g. not at the wheel of a car).
- Kapalabhati or “Skull Shining Breath” – How it’s done: Ready to brighten up your day from the inside out? This one begins with a long, slow inhale, followed by a quick, powerful exhale generated from the lower belly. Once comfortable with the contraction, up the pace to one inhale-exhale (all through the nose) every one to two seconds, for a total of 10 breaths. When it works best: When it’s time to wake up or start looking on the bright side. “It’s pretty abdominal-intensive,” Pacheco says, “but it will warm up the body, shake off stale energy, and wake up the brain.” If alternate nostril breathing is like coffee, consider this a shot of espresso, she says.
- The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath) – is adapted from yogic breathing techniques. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness. Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise. Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle. Do not do for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute. If done properly, you may feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen. Try this diaphragmatic breathing exercise the next time you need an energy boost and feel yourself reaching for a cup of coffee.
- The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise – is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.
- Breath Counting – If you want to get a feel for this challenging work, try your hand at breath counting, a deceptively simple breathing technique much used in Zen practice. Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally it will be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
- To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.
- The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five.”
- Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.
- Never count higher than “five,” and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to “eight,” “12,” even “19.”
Breathing & Spirituality
“We are not physical beings having an occasional Spiritual experience.We are Spiritual beings having an occasional physical experience.” ~ Deepak Chopra, M.D.
The latin word for “breath” and the root of the word “respiration” is”espiritus”. In fact, many languages use but one word for both breathand spirit. And it is believed by many that, upon death, the spiritleaves the body along with the final exhalation. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, “Breath is the movement of Spirit in the body.” Perhaps this begins to explain the many spiritual benefits of deeper breathing:
- Stronger sense of inner strength
- Feeling closer to the source of all life
- Deeper sense of faith and peace
- Greater courage and commitment to truth
- Improved self-esteem & self-worth
- Stronger intuition or “inner knowing”
- Feeling guided by God or a higher power
- Access to more creativity
The Universe Fills Us with Life’s Energy
As the universe fills us with air on the inhalation, it also replenishes us with prana – the energy of the living things that surround us. But if we’re to receive this energy, we must first make space for it in within ourselves.
Much of yoga is about removing waste from the bod to prepare it for spiritual experience. TKV Desikachar, one of the great masters of modern yoga, has often claimed that yoga is 90% waste removal. With every exhale, we remove from the body what is no longer needed, physically in terms of carbon dioxide and energetically in terms of stale energy and negative emotions. Yoga breathing also unites and integrates all of the body’s systems to assist with the overall elimination process, thus bringing us closer into a state ofsukha – good space.
Three Yoga Breathing Techniques
In addition to the many functions and benefits of a regular deep breath used during a yoga practice, various breathing techniques called pranayama have been developed by yoga masters to help us accomplish certain objectives. The following three are examples of what we can achieve with pranayama and concentrated breath.
Direct & Guide Chakra Breathing Technique
This chakra breathing technique will help balance the energy and revitalize any of the chakras. For example, if you focus on the heart chakra Anahata, you will strengthen your sense of compassion and unconditional love, balance your feelings of joy and passion, and invigorate the immune and endocrine systems. Click here for more details on each of the seven chakra energy centers.
Begin this exercise by sitting comfortably in a chair or cross legged on a pillow on the ground, the spine straight and the wrists resting on the knees or legs, palms facing upward. Breathe naturally and bring your awareness to one of the chakras. Keep your attention on only one chakra during this exercise. Notice any feelings in the area of the chakra that you’ve chosen – feelings such as tingling, warmth or buzzing. Then follow this process:
- Keep your awareness on the chakra.
- As you inhale, guide the energy of the in-breath to this chakra.
- As you exhale, settle your awareness and once again notice any sensations present in the chakra.
- Repeat for several breaths, before returning to your natural breath.
This breath is ideal at the beginning or end of your yoga practice, or anytime you need to revitalize one of your energy centers.
Ujjayi Breathing Technique
Ujjayi means victorious. This breathing technique is most beneficial when used during a physical asana yoga practice. Using Ujjayi during your asana practice distracts the mind from unwanted thoughts, with the breath acting as a mantra and helping the mind to focus. Ujjayi breath acts as a guide during the practice, and if its rhythm is broken or forced, we learn to back off, slow down or rest. Using Ujjayi also creates more postural support in the body, and is recommended during physically-demanding yoga practices such as Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga. After you’ve warmed up and prepared for your yoga practice, follow this process to being the Ujjayi breath:
- While inhaling and exhaling through the nose, partially close the throat until the breath creates a soft humming sound in the back of the throat. The physical formation of the throat and vocal cords is similar to that during whispering. The sound is often described as the hum of the ocean waves or the wind moving through tree tops.
- Gently smile with each breath, allowing the breath to swirl in the back of the throat before moving down into the lungs.
- Continue with this breath throughout your yoga practice.
This breath is ideal during a physical yoga practice, but it can also be used other times when you need to bring focus to the mind, such as during a walking meditation.
Kapalabhati Cleansing Technique
The Kapalabhati pranayama is a cleansing breath technique where we focus on short voluntary exhales. This technique benefits the body in many ways: it revitalizes the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems; it tones the abdominal muscles and improves metabolism; and it helps to purges your system of all negativity, including negative thoughts, physical ailments and diseases, and even damaging habits.
Begin this exercise by sitting comfortably cross legged on a pillow on the ground, the spine straight and the wrists and hands resting on the knees. You can also sit in a chair if sitting on the ground is not comfortable, with hands resting in the lap. Breathe naturally for a few breaths and relax the physical body from head, through the shoulders and torso, and down into the legs. Then follow this process:
- Inhale deeply through the nose until you’ve reached the top of the breath.
- Start with short, sharp exhales through nose, while at the same time squeezing the abdomen and pulling it in toward the spine, also in short bursts.
- Allow the inhalation to happen passively, without any emphasis on it.
- While practicing, visualize what you are expelling from the body.
- After about 20-30 seconds, inhale deeply through the nose until you’ve reached the breath’s full capacity, and exhale naturally.
- Observe the calmness in the mind for about 15-20 seconds, while breathing naturally.
- Repeat for 2 or 3 rounds.
Start practicing the Kapalabhati breathing technique with 2 rounds for about 20 seconds each, growing up to 3 rounds for 30 seconds each. Please note that Kapalabhati is a powerful breathing exercise, so it is not recommended if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, hernia, asthma, or are experiencing dizziness, back pain or abdominal pain during the exercise.
- Kendall, F., McCreary, E., Provance, P., Rodgers, M., Romai, W. (2005). Muscles testing and function with posture and pain (5th ed.). PA, USA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- © MMVIII-MMXIII, Aliesa George and Centerworks©. Used by Permission. Originally posted on Centerworks.com.