• mendmtphysio

Breathing: How and Why You Should Start Practicing

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

How many breaths do you think you take in a day and how many of those breaths do you pay attention to? Despite it's vital importance to our health and functioning, few of us pay any mind to our breathing and even fewer have a regular breathing practice.

Breathing practice?

We will define a breathing practice in this article as "any focused or intentional breathing." There are many styles of breathwork and breathing practices. You may be familiar with practices like Pranayama or The Wim Hof Method or simplistic exercises like Box Breathing or 4-7-8 Breathing. Some people may find deeper meaning and consistency with their breathwork if they adhere to a specific school of thought, while others may like more simplicity. The goal of this article is to keep things simple, give you the knowledge to understand breathing mechanics and how to improve them, and help you start a simple breathing practice.

For how simple breathing seems to be and how frequently we do it (tens of thousands of breaths each day) many people have adopted sub-optimal breathing patterns. Evidence suggests this may be especially true for people living with persistent (chronic) low back pain. A common breathing pattern seen clinically by physical therapists is apical breathing ("chest breathing") . When this pattern is utilized, the "accessory breathing muscles" (mostly located in the neck) are used to lift the top of the rib cage to allow the passage of air into the lungs. People tend to take more frequent and shallow breaths with an apical breathing pattern.

You may be thinking, "Well that is where I want the air to go... what's the problem?"

I will tell you what the problem could be!

Utilizing your neck/accessory muscles to breathe is not inherently a bad thing (these muscles are always contributing to breathing in some capacity), but overutilizing these muscles and underutilizing the respiratory diaphragm may lead to irritation of the neck muscles and soft-tissues as well as result in improper movement (or lack of movement) of the rib cage. When you consider the thousands and thousands of breaths you take in a day, normalizing your breathing mechanics may be important!

The roles of your respiratory diaphragm, your primary "breathing muscle"

Many people have heard of their respiratory diaphragm muscle and may even remember it is the primary muscle associated with breathing. That is just the tip of the iceberg! Your diaphragm plays a role in postural stability, digestion, pelvic floor health, lymphatic flow and more!

Your diaphragm is a relatively dome-shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity (contains heart, lungs, etc.) and abdominal cavity (contains stomach, intestines, etc.). Upon inhalation (breathing in) the dome of the diaphragm contracts and flattens, which increases the volume and decreases the pressure within the thoracic cavity and allows air to flow into the lungs. As the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its dome-shape, the process is reversed and you exhale! Diaphragmatic breathing ("belly breathing") is a more natural breathing strategy for most of us at rest and during light activity. The next section of this article will discuss how to start practicing breathing with an added mindfulness component to normalize the movement of your ribcage, take the load off your neck muscles and even reduce your stress!

4-7-8 "Diaphragmatic" Breathing

A great place to start your breathing practice and improve your diaphragmatic breathing is to utilize the "4-7-8" approach.

This is simply a 4-count inhale, 7-count breath hold and an 8-count exhale. Notice I used the word "count" and not "seconds." A 7-second breath-hold followed by an 8-second exhale can feel like an eternity for beginners, so I recommend counting at a steady pace that feels comfortable. As you get better at the exercise, you will be able to lengthen the time between counts!

What's with the numbers?

The reason for these seemingly random numbers are to slow your respiratory rate, deepen your breath, and to achieve roughly a 1 to 2 ratio of inhalation to exhalation time. Evidence suggests that the prolonged exhale helps stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest nervous system) that is associated with reduced stress & anxiety. Also, by counting the numbers in your head, you are turning this exercise into a mindfulness practice as well!

4-7-8 Breathing Setup & Prescription:

  1. Beginners should start by lying on their back with their knees bent to relax the abdominal muscles and have a greater sensation of the diaphragm pressing against the internal organs. A thin pillow or cushion for your head is okay, but avoid excessive cushioning that flexes your neck.

  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach to help you feel the difference between a diaphragmatic breath (belly breathing) and apical breath (chest breathing). The goal is to expand your stomach with your diaphragmatic breath while keeping your upper chest and neck muscles mostly still and "quiet" throughout the exercise.

  3. Breathe in and out through your nose if possible, and count the numbers in your head

  • Breathing in, "1, 2, 3, 4"

  • Hold your breath, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7"

  • Exhale, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8"

  • Beginners often "run out of air" before they count to 8. The prolonged exhale may be the most important part! Try to maintain a steady flow of air leaving your lungs for all 8 counts!

  • Repeat the cycle for at least 5 to 10 minutes and perform once a day

I hope this article has been helpful in understanding the importance of normalizing your breathing mechanics as well as the utility of a regular breathing practice. It takes very little time to practice your breathing to improve your movement quality and even your state of mind.

Thanks for reading, and happy breathing!

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