It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how complex a health issue may appear, the keys to resolving it are often innate and very simple.
For example, I am often humbled by how few health-conscious people (and even healthcare professionals) know how to breathe properly.
They eat well, drink plenty of water, exercise, get acupuncture, and meditate, but somewhere along the way, they have forgotten how to breathe right.
And without proper breathing, which oxygenates our cells, awakens our brains, nourishes our blood, reduces stress, and boosts our energy reserves, we can’t ever achieve that ideal level of health we all long for.
The good news is, you already know how to breathe properly, you may have simply forgotten how.
In today’s article, we will explore why the majority of us are breathing incorrectly, and look at the tools you need to re-learn how to breathe properly and reap all its glorious health benefits.
Why We’re Breathing All Wrong
We’ve talked about chronic stress a lot on this site. And one of the roots of chronic stress is being trapped in a consistent state of fight or flight.
When we enter into fight or flight—a natural process designed to help us survive in dangerous circumstances—our body pushes blood to our extremities and ramps up stress hormones production. It also quickens our breath so we can flee more efficiently (think runner’s-breath).
This biological response is a life-saver if you need to escape or fight to save yourself from danger. However, thanks to 24/7 technology and other modern stressors, we all spend way too much time in fight or flight on a daily basis.
This causes a laundry list of health issues, including chronic shallow breathing, or “chest breathing.”
I’ve also observed that babies, toddlers, and children all breathe correctly through their diaphragms. But children mimic adults, and as they grow and observe others they begin to mimic their shallow breathing patterns…which develops the habit of what’s known as chest-breathing.
Plus, many of us (especially women) may have made a choice years ago to suck in our stomachs to appear thinner, which results in shallow, upper body breathing.
Thus, we need to re-learn how to belly breathe properly as adults (and let go of the idea that a flat, motionless stomach means a healthy body).
And not just as part of a yoga practice or daily meditation, but as part of our everyday, every moment lifestyle.
Just like we understand the difference between dieting and making a lifestyle change to eat whole, unprocessed foods, I am passionate about emphasize that we are not talking about a breathing “technique” to incorporate when we are thinking about it or in special classes which incorporate breath awareness. Proper breathing is something to incorporate regularly–in every breath.
A Quick DIY Test Reveals if You’re Breathing Properly
Whenever I lecture, I ask the audience (often composed of doctors, yoga experts, and other integrative healers) to take a deep breath.
Virtually everybody breathes into their chest, which is not what we want. Proper breathing involves breathing into your diaphragm or belly, with a still chest and shoulders.
Are you breathing properly?
To find out, try this quick DIY breath test at home:
Bring your awareness to your breath, breathe in deeply, and as you’re doing this, ask yourself the following questions:
A: Do my shoulders move when I breathe?
B: Do my chest or my belly puff out?
If your shoulders move up when you breathe and/or your chest puffs out more than your belly, then you are not breathing properly.
What is Proper Breathing (and how to do it)?
Proper breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, or belly breathing…and it’s incredibly simple to re-learn.
Here’s how to do it:
- When you breathe in, sit up straight (posture counts) concentrate on filling your belly with air. Your belly should stick out…so let it!
- Move your shoulders and chest as little as possible (this will get easier as you practice).
- Exhale fully, emptying out your lungs.
- Repeat over and over.
- If you forget and find yourself chest-breathing again, just gently bring yourself back to that awareness and re-adjust your breath.
Helpful Belly Breathing Tips:
- Some of my patients have found it helpful to set reminders a couple times an hour, to help them pay attention to their breath. Some put these reminders (with a gentle sound such as a chime) on their smartphones.
- Posture really does count, so pay attention to how you’re sitting or standing throughout the day. If you’re slumped over, it can inhibit your lungs’ ability to expand. So gently pull your shoulders back and tilt forward a bit.
- Pay special attention to how you breathe when you’re engaged with electronic devices. Often, these devices cause us to shift into fight or flight (think 24-hour news cycles and social media drama) which triggers that shallow, chest-breathing we want to avoid.
- It may also be helpful to start each day with 5-10 minutes of focused belly breathing, which can be incorporated into your meditation. This will help focus your awareness on the breath for the rest of the day.
- The most important thing is to be gentle with yourself in this process, as you have likely been breathing incorrectly for years. New habits take time, patience, and effort to take root.
- If you need a visual, this TedX Talk: “How to breathe” presented by Belisa Vranich, offers an excellent tutorial on proper breathing. Watch it here.
The Significance of Breath in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the breath is seen as a representation of the constant cycle of life. Breathe in the new…breathe out the old.
The lungs are considered a “yin” organ with the large intestine as their balancing partner “yang” organ. The lungs take in the new and the large intestine releases the old.
In TCM, the lungs are also associated with feelings of grief and sadness, and emotional stagnation often manifests in poor breathing patterns and impaired lung function.
As we move from the fall season where the lung/large intestines are dominant, and into the winter, now is a perfect time to really focus on improving your breathing while releasing what no longer serves you.
I am a huge advocate of qigong for this very reason, as it focuses on moving energy and creating balance using movement and breath work.
Proven Health Benefits of Belly Breathing
For those who need a little extra scientific motivation, here are some of the proven health benefits of learning to breathe properly/deep belly breathing:
- Deep belly breathing encourages better oxygen uptake, which nourishes your entire body and brain1
- Proper breathing triggers your relaxation response, resulting in improved metabolism, a boost in energy, and decreased inflammation 2
- Belly breathing can help regulate your heart rate and lower or even regulate your blood pressure (without medication!) 3
- Deep, yogic-style breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression 4
- Breathing coupled with mindfulness has been shown to help fight insomnia and improve sleep patterns 5
- Deep breathing balances your autonomic nervous system and has been shown helpful for children and adults who suffer from ADD6
And this is just a small sampling of the research out there on how proper breathing benefits our entire body, mind, and spirit.
In closing, I’d like to re-emphasize the importance of treating proper, belly breathing as a lifestyle change. While I am entirely in favor of Qi Gong, yoga classes, and specific breathing exercises, it is only through working to permanently change our breathing habits that we can experience a new level of health and awareness.
I wish you every success with your breathing journey, and I envision a time where proper breathing is the norm rather than the exception.
To your abundant health,