Teaching people how to breathe might strike you as teaching grandmother to suck eggs. But there are different ways of breathing, and some are better than others. By looking first at the habits and consequences of bad breathing, we can make sure we are doing the opposite.
- High and quick
- In through the mouth
- Erratic, the breath repeatedly held and released
The visible signs of bad breathing are excess movement in the upper chest and tension across the neck, shoulders and jaw. Inwardly, this physical tension is reflected in mental or emotional tension: bad breathing is associated with stress, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, because bad breathing is shallow, the body is not receiving the oxygen it requires. In some cases, bad breathing is associated with chronic ill health.
The good news is that a few simple exercises can help us all to avoid the four pitfalls above. Let’s take each in turn.
1. Low and slow
Breathe in low and out slow. You will need to use your diaphragm. When working on breathing with my clients, I sometimes bring my homemade ‘torso’ into the session:
The ‘diaphragm’ is a sheet of balloon latex which I have stretched across the bottom of the bottle. The only way to get the balloons inside the chest (ie, the lungs) to inflate is to tug the diaphragm downwards. This lowers the pressure in the bottle, and air is pulled in through the hole at the top (ie, the nose). Almost magically, the lungs fill up! Pushing the diaphragm back up deflates the balloons as the surrounding pressure squeezes the air out.
**UPDATE 1 JUNE 2022**
After so many of you asked to see my ‘lungs’ in action, I asked Martyn to film me demonstrating my favourite toy!:
In exactly the same way, the work in breathing should be low in your body, beneath your ribs. Use your diaphragm to pull the air in and push it out. Practise breathing lying on your back in semi-supine to help tune into your diaphragm.
Controlling the out-breath will slow your pulse (instantly) and calm your mind.
2. In Through the Nose
The nose is designed for breathing. As air travels along its length, it is moistened, warmed up, and filtered. (Mouth-breathed air is dry and dusty).
Deep (A ‘Lungful’)
As you lie in semi-supine, use your diaphragm to ‘fill up’ with air. Feel it pouring into the bottom of your lungs, around your lower ribs. Now shape your lips into a tight ‘w’ and blow out, as though through a straw. Feel your diaphragm engage to push the air up and out.
Be careful not to over-fill (puffing yourself up) or over-empty (forcing out every last drop). Keep your breathing full but comfortable. Relax.
4. Smooth and Even
As you breathe in, count slowly to three, then count the same three as you breathe out. Feel the air flowing into and out of your body. Add a pause in the middle. Do not ‘hold’ your breath by closing the mouth or throat; use the tummy muscles to keep the air in for the same slow count of three. Do three cycles: in for 3; pause for 3; out for 3, three times. It’s amazing how good such a simple exercise can feel
Breathe Yourself Well
Having begun with the downsides of bad breathing, we can end more happily by reflecting on the upsides of good breathing: a confident posture and clear, strong voice (as I have explored in my first and second blogs); a balanced mind, and even a healthy immune system. It is no coincidence that correct breathing is at the heart of Tai Chi, yoga and many other ancient systems whose aim is to elevate the mind and body. Diaphragm breathing massages the guts and stimulates the vagus nerve. It is not far-fetched to claim that good breathing can help to fight off illness and boost longevity. May you all breathe well, live long and prosper!