Breathing. You do it all the time – but do you do it as well as you could?
Just like how you stand all the time, but you could stand with better posture. And just like how you know how to run – but you could probably do it with better technique; do you think it just might be possible that you might be able to improve your breathing technique too?
Turns out – you probably can.
Let’s Test It
Take a deep breath. Right now. Take in as much air as you can and take notice of what part of you moves.
As your lungs expand, you’ll probably notice one or two of these areas moves, starting from top to bottom:
You might have noticed your shoulders lifted up, or your chest or belly might have expanded.
If for you you noticed your shoulders or chest (or both) moving but not really your belly – you could be breathing better.
A Better Way To Breathe
Breathing into your belly is the best way to breathe when you’re at rest. Which for most of us is most of the time. That means when you’re sitting at work, sitting in the car, sitting on the couch, standing in a queue, standing in the kitchen as you cook and so on.
Breathing with your chest and shoulders is what you tend to do during exercise, when you’re out of breath. Or more specifically – when you’re under stress.
The reason it’s good for us to learn to breathe into our bellies when we’re at rest is because our stress systems work both ways.
Think back to GCSE biology. Remember that thing called Fight or Flight mode? This is what your body goes into when your brain detects a stressful situation. Usually when we talk about Fight or Flight we talk about situations involving physical stress or danger.
For example: a mugger jumps out in front of you. Your body goes into Fight or Flight mode to prepare you to either fight the mugger, or run away from them. Your cortisol (stress hormone) level goes up, your pupils dilate, your heart rate goes up, and you start breathing up in your chest and shoulders with short, sharp breaths to get oxygen to your muscles faster.
But the same Flight or Flight mode gets activated for mentally stressful situations, too. Think of someone having a panic attack. All those same things are happening – and the one you probably notice the most is their breathing if they’re getting close to hyperventilating.
Like I mentioned before, your stress system goes both ways. Your breath can guide the rest of the system. If your brain notices you’re breathing with your chest and shoulders it thinks to itself “Oh, this is how I breathe when there’s stress around. I must have missed something, Better turn the rest on a bit just in case.”
So, if you breathe into your belly, the opposite happens. Your brain notices and thinks “Ah, we must be stress-free right now. I’ll put us in Rest and Digest mode, then.”
Rest & Digest is the opposite of Fight or Flight.
As a result, your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure comes down, and you feel more relaxed (because your cortisol level has come down).
The more you consciously breathe this way, the more your body will shift into naturally breathing this way.
Just like anything, to get the most benefit, it’s going to take some conscious effort and some time. So give it both.
Start by laying down. Touch your thumbs together and place them on your belly button, relaxing the rest of your hands and arms around your belly however is comfortable.
Now close your eyes, breathe in, and use your thumbs as a guide to aim to move your belly rather than your chest. Focus on pushing your belly up and out as far as possible.
Then take your hands away and see if you can still notice the movement of your belly.
Finally, sit up and do the same.
How do you feel after? Relaxed? A bit dazed?
Sometimes you can feel a bit light headed getting up from breathing like this laying down. It’s all that extra oxygen you’ve managed to get to your brain. Which can’t be a bad thing.
So, how’s your breathing? Are you going to be paying it a bit more attention and working to breathe into your belly more often?
Remember: the more you practice, the more natural it’ll become, and the more you’ll benefit.
For the perfect way to practice your new breathing technique, try this guided meditation.