It’s not until you find yourself running out of air that you are even aware of your breath (or you started reading an article about breathing and you can’t remember if this is how you normally do it or not).
So breathing is a subconscious action for humans, this is useful as it leaves space in our minds to think about other things, but have we let bad habits override our natural ability to inhale and exhale efficiently?
Try this simple test to find out which type of breathing you do.
Lie down on your back, put your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest. Take a few natural breaths, and bring your attention to which hand is moving up when you inhale. You probably fall into one of the these three categories.
1. The Stomach hand moves up when you inhale:
Congratulations! You are doing abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing, this is the most effective way to bring maximum oxygen to the body with every breath. Also called stomach or belly breathing.
The principal muscle involved in abdominal breathing is the diaphragm, a strong dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. During the inhalation the diaphragm moves downwards, causing the abdominal muscles to relax and expand. In this position, the lungs are drawn down, creating a partial vacuum, which brings more air in with less effort. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, the abdominal muscles contract and help us to expel more air containing carbon dioxide.
The greater expansion and ventilation occurs in the lower part of the lung where the blood perfusion is greatest. Generally this is how babies will breathe but due to life factors (stress/tension, poor posture, restrictive clothing and lack of training etc.) it is often forgotten.
2. The chest hand moves up when you inhale:
You are doing thoracic breathing! This is the most common style of breathing in today’s stressful environment. It is also called chest breathing. While it may feel very natural for many of you it is actually much less efficient than abdominal breathing (above). It is quite easy to change your breathing style although it may take a little time (I’ll talk more about that later) first let me explain thoracic breathing.
This type of breathing is characterized by an outward, upward movement of the chest bringing most of the oxygen that you inhale to the centre portion of your lungs. This all sounds fine, but as I discussed above most of the blood (and therefore most of the potential for rapid/efficient gas exchange) is concentrated in the lower part of your lungs, which in this case remain almost stationary.
I’m not saying that you are not getting any oxygen, obviously you are but it requires much more effort from the body, to acquire the same amount. It also requires effort to lift the rib cage and expand the intercostal muscles.
But chest breathing is useful! (if it wasn’t we probably wouldn’t be able to do it) This style of breathing naturally happens in a fight or flight situation, it can aid in triggering adrenalin and stress hormones to help you cope with extreme external or internal challenges, and danger. This is of course a good thing, but it also means the body has created a relationship between your breath and your hormones. (yoga scriptures say that irregular breathing is the first symptom of disease) When the body needs stress hormones it naturally changes the breathing pattern, but this also works in reverse. If you breathe from the chest you will be increasing your ‘stress hormones’ and promoting an unsteadiness in the body which can eventually lead to disease.
3.The chest hand moves up and stomach hand goes down when you inhale:
Paradoxical breathing, this has similar effects to chest breathing (above) but slightly more aggravated. By bringing the stomach in when you inhale you restrict any movement in the diaphragm, really reducing the capacity of your lungs.
Read the section on chest breathing to understand the implication of this.
In a very extreme case (asthma attack or obstruction of the oesophagus) the body uses the muscles in the neck, throat, and sternum, to draw air into the top part of your lungs -just under the clavicles- after the thoracic inhalation is complete in order to bring a little more air into the lungs. This will not occur under any normal circumstances.
So what can be done about your breathing?
Fortunately we are not all doomed to be stuck with bad habits we’ve acquired over time. There are many asanas (postures) in Yoga that can help to bring your awareness to your breath, and teach you to breathe freely and efficiently. The main aim of yoga after all, is breath awareness, not who can twist into the most complicated knot.
On the yoga mat
At the Office
Try sitting up straight in your office chair, with your feet and knees about 2ft apart. Using your arms twist your body and face the back of your chair (creating a spiral motion up the spine and neck) In this position it will be difficult to breathe only from the chest and you will start to understand the feeling of abdominal breathing. Practice twisting on both sides of the body for equal lengths of time.
You Can Also Try
Lying down on your back and placing 2-3 kg sandbag or a heavy book on your stomach. Becoming aware of your breath, try to push the weight up as you inhale. This exercise will strengthen your diaphragm.
Keep doing these exercises and slowly your body will get used to abdominal breathing, the effects may seem subtle but over time this can really help to calm the mind and bring balance.