Updated: Jun 24, 2021
One of the first things yoga therapists may consider when working with a client is how well they are breathing. This may seem strange at first. As breathing in and out is something we do more than 17,000(1) times per day, many of us don’t even think about it. You might say what is the big deal about breathing? Who cares really?
Think for a minute about how you breathe when you are upset, then you might begin to see how much of an impact it can have on your physiology and wellbeing. When you are upset you might notice that your breath becomes more rapid and concentrated in your upper chest. Your abdominal muscles may clench and your breathing may become shallow and rapid. This type of breathing sends our bodies into stress mode.
There are now six known states of stress according to Dr. Curtis Reisinger, clinical psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital. At a high level they are: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flood and fatigue(2). Fight and flight are the most commonly known responses that we may all have heard of and are self explanatory. Then there is freeze (deer in headlights), fawn (appease or submit to threat), flood (flooded with emotions) and fatigue (can be the physical need to sleep or emotional and/or psychological fatigue). These responses come into play when we are preparing or managing danger from a perceived enemy or threat. Of course the stress response can be helpful during those times when we do need to be alert and ready to defend ourselves, fight an illness or manage a difficult situation quickly. However, most of us spend way too much time in this mode throughout the day without even realizing it. Having the body in a constant state of stress can be quite detrimental to our health. It compromises our immune system and overall well being(3). What we want is a good balance within our nervous system.
So one possible way to get the body back into balance relatively quickly is to work on functional breathing. When I say functional, I mean how we breathe day and night during regular activities. We do use specific breathwork techniques in yoga therapy which are very effective as well, but first it is important to try and address everyday breathing.
There are a few things we look at initially:
Proper use of diaphragm: The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle located under the lungs around the area of the low ribs. We should notice an expansion of the low ribs on inhale and contraction on exhale. Not a lot of motion should happen around the upper chest. As the diaphragm is a muscle, it can be inhibited, weak and underutilized in suboptimal breathing(4). With the Inhale low ribs should expand, with the exhale low ribs should contract…. Sometimes this can be done in reverse which also puts the body into a fight or flight mode… this is commonly seen in anxiety sufferers. It is called reverse or paradoxical breathing. Correcting reverse breathing alone can make a big impact and proper use of the diaphragm is important in healthy breathing(5).
Nasal breathing: For the majority of the time, breathing should be happening in and out of the nose. The nasal passages clean, moisten and slow the airflow before it hits our lungs(6). If we do more mouth breathing than we should, breathing tends to be upper chest, and the air comes into the lungs cold, ‘raw’ and filled with whatever particles, bacteria, and viruses are in the air. Nasal breathing should be happening during day and night as well for optimal breathing(7).
Air volume: Just like we shouldn’t eat more food then our body needs, we also shouldn’t breathe more air then we need physiologically. This is a little tricky to explain as many think the more air we breathe, the more oxygen we get into our bodies but this isn’t necessarily the case. When we ‘over’ breathe (hyperventilate), we exhale out too much CO2 which causes a decrease of this gas in the bloodstream. We need CO2 to help deliver oxygen into our tissues and cells. So more air volume does not mean more oxygen to the places in the body that need it. The good news is, if we are using our diaphragm efficiently and nasal breathing, the volume of air will be less naturally. The other thing we can do when observing our breathing is to try and slow down the rate a bit. Think about how you breathe when you are relaxed… you may be breathing slow and deep, not fast and rapid. The idea that taking a ‘big’ breath when we are stressed is counterproductive. We should actually try and slow down our breathing and focus on expansion of the low ribs on inhale with a slow exhale and ribs contracting…. This gives us a productive deep breath, with our cells and tissues being fully oxygenated, but it isn't a “big” breath where we blow off too much CO2(9).
Once I started to pay attention to my breathing throughout the day and intentionally fine tuning it as needed, it made a big impact on my wellbeing. I couldn't believe the difference it made to my stress levels and overall feeling more calm during the day. I was less reactive and could recover more quickly from things that irritated me. Just bringing awareness to it made a big difference and I do it everyday now. I still notice that some days are better than others!
However, it is important to note that for some, focusing on breathing is not feasible at first. It may feel too confusing and stressful. In the short term, it can potentially create anxiety depending on the individual and circumstance. We acknowledge constantly in yoga therapy that everyone is unique in their experiences. If you struggle at first focusing on your breath, it is ok… it should never be forced. You may want to try and put just a little movement with it at first to see how that feels. For example, on an inhale, raise your arms. Feel your belly and low ribs expand (no need to force it). On the exhale bring your arms down at your sides. Pull your low ribs slightly and feel a contraction in the belly. So, arms up inhale, arms down exhale. Focusing on body movement and breath together can be a good way to get started. Another technique that can be helpful is taking a short walk (outside if you can) with your mouth closed. That’s it. Start with these two techniques for a bit and see if it starts to feel more natural to focus on your breath more often.
Otherwise, improving functional breathing can be a relatively quick and easy way to improve our stress response and overall well being(10). So if you would like to just begin to observe your breathing throughout the day, a recap of things to focus on is below. As is the yogic way, we always do our best to observe our habits and patterns without judgement. Because they are just that, habits and patterns that can be adjusted and changed as needed.
Key attributes of healthy breathing(11):
Optimal use of the diaphragm
Optimal volume: light, slow and deep
Just observe and see what you notice…..
As always, feel free to contact me with any questions!
1- Editorial Staff, (2017, July 20). How Your Lungs Get the Job Done. Retrieved from www.lung.org
2- Heany, Katie, (2017, July 11). When Stress Makes You Fall Asleep. Retrieved from www.thecut.com
3- Mayo Clinic Staff, (2019, April 4). Stress Symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.com
4 - McKeown, Patrick, 2021, The Breathing Cure, OxyAt Books, Ireland
5 - McKeown, Patrick, 2021, The Breathing Cure, OxyAt Books, Ireland
6 - David C. Dugdale, III, MD, (2021, February 7). Upper Respiratory Tract. Retrieved from www.medlineplus.gov
7 - McKeown, Patrick, 2021, The Breathing Cure, OxyAt Books, Ireland
8 - Healthwise Staff, (2020, February 26), Hyperventilation. Retrieved from www.uofmhealth.org
9 - McKeown, Patrick, 2021, The Breathing Cure, OxyAt Books, Ireland
10 -Harvard Health Publishing, (2020, July 6). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Retrieved from www.health.harvard.edu.
11 - McKeown, Patrick, 2021, The Breathing Cure, OxyAt Books, Ireland
Additional reference note: I have used a lot of information here from Patrick McKeown, a world renowned author and breathing practitioner and his latest book The Breathing Cure. The book is also filled with references. McKeown has worked with thousands of people in a clinical setting to improve their breathing. Check him out if you want more information on breathing and breathing techniques to improve both functional breathing and athletic performance. More information from him can be found at Buteyko Clinic and Oxygen Advantage.