We all do it, but how well do you breathe?
Breathing is the very first thing we do once we are born. It is an unconscious automatic process inherently controlled by the respiratory centre in our brain (our central nervous system).
Breathing has a significant role in the wellbeing and normal functioning of our bodies. It is our most primal functional pattern that we adopt as infants, however, it is unfortunately considered to be our most dysfunctional one as we age.
Many of us are hardly aware of it, but simply put, majority of us don’t breathe properly. And in case you were wondering, there is a certain way we should be breathing and, it does seem unreasonable to think that we need to be taught on how to breathe, knowing that breathing is something we do automatically.
Take a few breaths, and take notice of how you are breathing.
While you breathe, does your upper chest and shoulders rise and expand?
Or does your abdomen/belly expand and bellow outwards?
If you said yes to your upper chest and shoulders predominantly rising and expanding while breathing, you have unfortunately adopted a faulty breathing pattern. But don’t worry you are not alone! The majority of people we see present with an incorrect breathing pattern.
This dysfunctional breathing pattern limits our ability to oxygenate our body, prevents proper movement and reduces strength, alters our posture and de-conditions and de-stabilises our spine.
Ultimately, these issues combined, hinder the proper functioning of our bodies.
Scientific studies have shown that controlling and improving our breathing pattern can help to promote relaxation, reduce stress and improve postural control and stabilisation of the spine.
Therefore it makes sense to not only take time to breathe often, but to breathe well!!
How we should be breathing
The simple fact that we breathe doesn’t necessarily mean we breathe correctly!
We should all be breathing mainly through our diaphragm, which involves our abdomen or belly to bellow outwards and expand while we breathe in.
It is actually very noticeable when you observe it in infants and or young kids.
The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle. It is a dome shaped muscle that forms the floor of the chest cavity, separating the chest organs from the abdominal organs. The diaphragm works together with muscles in between our ribs, called the intercostal muscles, and help our ribs to expand.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm descends down, creating negative pressure to make room and allow for the lungs to expand (as shown in the picture below).
While the diaphragm descends as we breathe in, an increase in intra-abdominal pressure occurs. This engages the muscles of the core: a corset shaped muscle called the transverse abdominus, the pelvic floor muscles, and deep intrinsic muscles of the spine called the multifidi muscles . (shown in the picture below)
This intra-abdominal pressure functionally tightens, supports and therefore, stabilises our spine. So this interconnected system of muscular control, orchestrated by the diaphragm, not only functions to coordinate and control our breathing, but also plays a key role in postural control and decreases the stress and strain on our backs when functioning through movement.
So what happens to the diaphragm that allows it to be so dysfunctional?
The dysfunction of our diaphragm, which is ultimately, our breathing mechanics is not due to our diaphragm being weak. It is actually due to the diaphragm being very underpowered, caused by an altered neurological message from the brain. This causes the body to use alternate (secondary) muscles to breathe.
This facilitates the dysfunctional patterning that involves your upper chest and shoulders to predominantly rise and expand when you breathe.
This change in diaphragm function can occur right under our noses, often developing from prolonged or recurring exposure to one or both of the following:
Injury, pain, stress or fear
Abnormal blood pH balance in your body- mainly related to our oxygen/carbon dioxide balance as well as our acid/alkaline balance through our diet.
Injury, pain, stress or fears are ventilatory stimulants that can alter breathing.
Under prolonged or recurring pain and stressful conditions, as well as anything that affects the pH balance in your body (for instance, poor diet, infection, allergy, kidney or hormonal dysfunction) altered breathing can simply become a habit.
When breathing becomes dysfunctional due to conditions like these, shallow and constricted breaths can cause:
Now don’t worry-
You have the power to change and improve your breathing!
Fortunately, we also have the conscious control to deliberately change, control and re-train our faulty breathing patterns.
Proper breathing helps to normalise your nervous system from a stressed/ survival mode state, to a relaxing/resting state.
The way to do this is to begin by focusing on abdominal breathing in order to re-engage your diaphragm.
This breathing exercise is considered the first basic step to engage your diaphragm.
It should be done twice a day (for instance in the morning and night, in bed) or whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting/negative thoughts or when you are experiencing pain.
(As shown below)
Hint: You should feel your stomach rise and your lower ribs expand, with the breath felt all the way down towards your pelvic floor. Imagining your abdomen expanding three dimensionally, filling up like a balloon.
Whilst breathing out through the mouth with pursed lips, this will allow you to gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs.
Take another slow deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room.
Repeat this for a total of 5 deep breaths.
The “ideal” end goal is to relax the breath to 6 to 8 cycles per minute with 6-10 seconds worth of breathing in, and then 6-10 seconds out.
Once you’ve mastered this important basic abdominal breathing exercise, the next step would be to apply this breathing exercise whilst seated, to specifically suppress or down regulate the upper shoulder/chest dominant patterning, where you are putting pressure down onto the arm rest depressing the chest/upper shoulders, isolating the breath through the diaphragm!
(as shown in picture below)
The state of one’s breathing is often a reflection of their state of well-being. The importance of restoring normal breathing mechanics for good health and for successful rehabilitation cannot be understated.
In order to empower the effectiveness of improving our breathing function, it is important to be assessed, corrected and treated for, before breathing re-training begins! This is an important step in order to have optimized and lasting results.
The reason for this is that the function of all the core muscles involved with breathing, that we mentioned earlier, including the diaphragm, are reliant and literally connected with the structure of the pelvis and spine.
When these structures are moving properly, as well as the hips- which will ensure the pelvis and spine remain stable in gravity- the ability of the muscles to be retrained and perform to their fullest will be maximized.
The skeletal system holds the body up in gravity, just like the framework of the poles and struts that hold up a circus tent. If the structural components of the circus tent are distorted, then the material of the tent (i.e. in our bodies- our muscles and connective tissue that binds us together) becomes tensioned wrongly – the tent material/muscles will be tensioned incorrectly. This analogy explains how our muscle imbalances, poor posture and therefore faulty breathing mechanics can develop.
In order to deal with such a functional issue, assessment and treatment by a Spinal Symmetry practitioner will be required in order to address any underlying structural and muscular dysfunctions that may be present. This will contribute to restoring proper functioning of the diaphragm and restoring proper breathing mechanics. Treatment may also address restrictions surrounding the rib cage, neck and mid/lower back where the nerve supply can reset pathways affecting breathing.