Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Did you even know you could be breathing incorrectly? Did you know breathing correctly has many health benefits, like reduce stress and upper body tension and also, change how your voice sounds? Well, it can.
I was 9 years old when I began learning the trumpet and 12 when I joined a choir. It was in these activities I learnt all about breathing and how apparently I wasn't doing it correctly. They told me I was "shallow breathing" - the insult! Said I should be using my diaphragm. My young, vacant eyes told them everything.
What they were talking about, I later learnt in a book, was diaphragmatic breathing. More commonly called deep breathing. Breathing, that is supported/carried out/controlled by our diaphragm.
Fig. 1 shows in a very simple way, the movement of your lungs, diaphragm, (the green line), and your rib cage, (the black lines). Notice how the diaphragm goes down when inhaling, (breathing in), and up when exhaling, (breathing out).
In diaphragmatic, (deep), breathing, when breathing in, it is your stomach that should expand outwards, not the chest. OK, so your chest will expand a little and that's OK, but about 90% of the movement you see, should be with your stomach. The reason the diaphragm goes down when inhaling is to increase the space the lungs have to expand, downwards, as the volume of the lungs increases - watch the pink blobs move above. By going down, the diaphragm allows the lungs to expand downwards, rather than outwards into the chest cavity, which is why when breathing in this way, we should not see our chests stick out like a male bird doing a mating dance!
Shallow breathing, or chest breathing, is when we breathe without really using the support of our diaphragm. This is the kind of breathing we do unconsciously if you remember from blog 1. It's the breathing that creates tension in our upper body, shoulders and neck. It's the kind of breathing that can produce an airy voice - it may sound sexy but it's not healthy! It's also the kind of breathing that can't fully engage your parasympathetic nervous system, (see blog 3), and the kind of breathing that results in people trying mindfulness and meditation for the first time and deciding it doesn't "work" for them.
In his book, "Just Breathe", Dan Brulé states, "By controlling our breath, we can willfully influence the brain and the autonomic nervous system and literally change our mind-body state. Breathing affects every organ, system and function in the body. Every physiological and emotional state has a corresponding breathing pattern. When you change one, the other changes. Therefore consious breathing techniques have the potential to transform the quality of your life on every level and on a day-to-day basis."
Diaphragmatic breathing, also scientifically called Eupnea, is how we first started breathing as babies. Watch a baby while it is resting and see its belly moving in and out and not its chest. The problem is as we get older, we learn to keep that stomach in, and, especially in men, keep that chest out! In mindful breathing, we are trying to go back to our correct breathing style, the way we are wired to breathe as humans.
Your key here is the importance of learning conscious, mindful, diaphragmatic breathing.
Some benefits of diaphragmatic breathing
1. Engages your parasympathetic nervous system, (PNS), of which there are numerous health benefits.
2. Engages your vagus nerve/vagal PNS. (I'll cover this in a later blog), but we know it has significant effects on how we trust, love and connect with other humans.
3. Lowers blood pressure.
4. Lowers heart rate.
5. Reduces anxiety, body tension and stress.
6. Reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
7. Is beneficial to asthmatics as it reduces chest expansion and upper body tension.
8. Helps cope with symptoms of PTSD.
9. Improves core muscle stability, which is why it's used in yoga, Pilates and martial arts.
10. Helps focus the mind in mindfulness and meditation practices.
To put this into practice, continue to read blogs 3 and 4, as we are building up your knowledge here, to give you good and basic foundation before we start breathing.
That's it for blog 2. Read on to blog 3 to learn about your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and how deep breathing is connected to them and how conscious, mindful, deep breathing is the foundation to you starting your journey into a life full of mindfulness and meditation.