Do you ever stop and think about the way you breathe?
Our breath is such a valuable tool, it can provide us with so many benefits, both physical and mental. Through our breath, we are fuelling our body with oxygen and able to clear a foggy mind. When we are born, we instinctively breathe through our abdomen, using our diaphragm muscle, but over time we lose this instinct. This is a response to environmental stressors such as temperature, pollution, posture and stress and results in many of us becoming shallow, upper chest breathers – often holding our breath and taking in less air.
This breathing pattern uses muscles around our neck and chest to expands our lungs, creating tension in those areas and leading to further problems such as headaches. Upper chest breathing limits our capacity to fill the lower part of our lungs and use our diaphragm effectively. This is associated with an increased feeling of stress and anxiety, a lower immune system and mood changes.
The diaphragm is a large muscle which sits below our lungs and rib cage. Its role is to assist breathing mechanics by contracting and flattening as we take a breath in, allowing more space for our lungs to expand and take in air. As we breathe out, our diaphragm relaxes, pushing the air out of our lungs. Effectively using our diaphragm while you breathe has so many benefits, such as reduced feeling of stress or anxiety, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improved mood and higher energy levels.
Before practising abdominal breathing, it is important to become more aware of your breath throughout the day. Which part of your body is moving as you breathe in and out? Does it change in different situations, for example, while you are stressed or driving?
To practise abdominal breathing to engage your diaphragm, lay on your back and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, to provide you with feedback. Take a deep breath in, pushing out your stomach as you do so. The hand on your stomach should rise up, while the hand on your chest remains still. Alternatively, you can place both your hands on your lower rib cage. When you take a breath in, you want to think about pushing your hands away from each other, moving your rib cage outwards, while keeping your upper chest still.
With both variations, breath in through your nose for 3-4 seconds and out through your nose for 4-5 seconds, pause and repeat this pattern for 10 breath cycles. Return to your normal breathing pattern and then go again. This will take discipline and practice as ultimately you are trying to relearn something which is instinctive to you. Set a target to practise once a day. It will take time but the benefits will all be worth it.