Breathing – its so simple… we all breathe… but are we breathing in the best way for our health & well being?
Poor breathing has been associated with disturbed sleep, body tension & discomfort, increased anxiety, increased stress response, and lost mental focus.
Many high performance people such as marks people & shooters, armed forces, athletes, actors, singers, use breathing to aid their performance.
And if you have a respiratory disorder, symptoms like shortness of breath & general non-well being, can be improved with better breathing.
Breathing well can ease stress, make you feel calmer, more relaxed, and focused. It can help you do more with less effort.
Did you know you could improve your breathing with little effort and just 5 minute per day? There is a special breathing practice used by the Himalayan Yoga tradition (and others) that may help you. What’s more there is evidence to prove it can work.
Even better, it may even help your back condition! Research suggest poor breathing & pelvic control could be a major factor in some peoples back pain.
Want to know more?
In a pulmonary physiotherapy study, 43 young adults with limited chest expansion of 5 cm, were taught to do this practice 3 times per week for 5 to 10 minutes over a 4 week period. With just a small amount of effort they gained significant improvement in lung function and back stability.
Improvement was achieved in a non strenuous way, and the practice helped to reduce overuse of the accessory respiratory muscles of the neck, chest & shoulders. It was a good guiding study, but was limited in size and awaits more follow up studies.
Another study on people with respiratory disorder (COPD) who were given the practice twice daily for 30 minutes over a 3 month period, were able to improve respiratory function better than compared to standard aerobic exercise.
Learning to improve breathing can be difficult due to misunderstandings such as trying to breathe too hard, doing the wrong action, having weak respiratory muscles such as the diaphragm, and having poor body awareness, making it hard to to know what is happening in the body as you breathe.
Learning a little about the anatomy of breathing may help…
The respiratory muscle called the the diaphragm is a dome like muscle which sits between the rib cage & abdomen. It has a central tendon with the outer muscles portions attaching to the rib cage & lower back spine. When the outer muscles contract it draws the central dome tendon toward the abdomen, and when the muscle relaxes, it springs back toward the chest. This spring back effect could be restricted if you hold tension in your diaphragm muscle.
This means when you inhale the diaphragm moves toward the abdomen, and if the abdominal muscle tension is relaxed, the belly will gently expand, and when exhaling in a relaxed way the abdomen sinks backward & slightly upward.
In the torso there is also another diaphragm muscle called the pelvic floor. This muscle is also interacting with the diaphragm & your breathing, and has bearing to your posture, pelvis & spine.
You can also actively exhale by drawing your inner tummy muscles inward ie Transversus Abdominus. You do this to sing out, blow out a candle, cough, and so forth.
Breathing is generally automatic, but you can consciously control it with attention & awareness such as holding the breath, lengthening or shortening the breath, or ‘forcing’ the breath out.
As a side note, yoga generally recommends breathing in & out through the nose, except for special exercises. Nose breathing is natural, it has warming, humidifying, and filtering effects, so the airways are less stressed. Gentle nose breathing can also have a calming effect on the nervous system. Mouth breathing is generally a more stressful type of breathing. If you feel a little blocked in the nostrils sometimes all you need to do is to bring awareness to the nostrils as you breathe and this may help the nose airways open up. If very blocked then just try the best you can. Don’t become stressed because you feel short of breath from nose breathing.
There are also accessory breathing muscles, which help the diaphragm, when more demanding breathing is required, as with intense exercise. These can include muscles between the ribs, neck muscles attaching to the upper ribs, and also chest muscles associated with shoulder. Some people can develop bad breathing technique where they over rely on accessory muscle action ie upper chest breathing, which can cause increased tension, the stress response and upper body discomfort. The special breathing exercise can help restore more normal breathing patterns.
Getting back to the diaphragm; remember it’s a muscle, which means it can become weak from poor use, but can be strengthened with the correct types of exercise. To strengthen a muscle we need a tool or resistance for the muscle to work against.
This is what this special breathing exercise is all about, using a soft comfortable weighted object placed on the upper abdomen, just below the ribs. This weight becomes the resistance which the diaphragm works against to help it strengthen.
Traditionally sandbags weighing about 4 to 5 kg were used. I have found if you have respiratory issues or have very poor breathing then start first just with abdominal breath awareness, then over time begin to add load eg 1 kg, 2 kg and so forth. Cuff weights can be used, but also bags of rice, or hot water bottle filled with water. Warm water is comforting in cold weather. Breathing while lying on your stomach, such as in Crocodile posture, can create some weight resistance to breathing also.
The secret to this practice is to relax & keep it simple…
1 Lie down on your back in a comfortable position – support head or knees as you need.
2 Place the soft comfortable weight on the upper belly just below the base ribs. (This is different to Ayurveda where you may place the load at the level of the pelvis to help ground, and reduce anxiety & stress.)
3 Breathing slowly and evenly with awareness on the action, allowing your belly & the weight to rise on the inhale (don’t push your belly out)… relax back on the exhale…
4 Keep your neck, shoulders & upper chest soft & relaxed.
5 Practice for 5 to 10 minutes, but stop sooner if fatigued.
6 Try 2 days on with practice, then have 1 rest day, and see how you feel after 4 weeks training, with your breathing.
One thing to consider… if you have a respiratory disorder like asthma, chronic respiratory disorder like COPD (research indicates that sandbag breathing may be helpful), very poor posture, severe emotional issues or anxiety, very poor breathing technique, very poor pelvic control, or are in chronic pain – You may be best to learn breathing practices from a senior yoga teacher, yoga therapist, experienced breathing physiotherapist, or other appropriate health professional so you can be supervised, to avoid developing bad habits, or further stress to your mind or body.
James & Radhika have provided education in breathing for many people, including those with respiratory disorders, successfully for many years. We encourage breath improvement with slow gentle practices, not with forcefulness. Breathing needs to balanced to the activity avoiding the adverse effects of over breathing.
- Dr Ganesh et el “Effect of sandbag breathing exercises on respiratory parameters and lumber stability in asymptomatic individuals – An experimental study.” 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.22192/ijcrms.2018.04.02.013
- Rolf Sovik Sandbag breathing: 30 days to s stronger diaphragm. Himalayan Tradition
- Yong-Cun et el “The effect of loaded deep inhale training on mild & moderate COPD smokers.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4238494/
- Hodges el el “Disorders of breathing and continence have stronger association with back pain than obesity & physical activity” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16515418/