Breathing is the simplest, most automatic process our bodies perform every day. On average, we breath about 20,000 times per day! It's also the most important process given that if we do not do it, we will die very quickly. The amount of oxygen inhaled influences the energy release into our body. And when you fail to breathe the way our bodies are designed, bad things can happen. Mental Fog, dizziness, anxiety, chest pain, digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and certain types neck & shoulder pain (link), even high blood pressure and reduced recovery (for all of the athletes reading this), can result from not breathing properly. There are even studies that suggest is worsens asthma, allergies, rhinitis, and sleep apnea. Here we will discuss how people typically breathe, how you should be breathing, and types of breathing exercises you can do at home.
What is "incorrect breathing" and how do I know if this applies to me?
Chances are, you experience a time or two (or 1000) of poor breathing during the day. If you work in an office, you very likely sit in a chair most of the day. When you sit down, your lungs reduce efficiency from both (1) poor seated positions, meaning bad posture, which places pressure on the lungs not allowing them to fill to their fullest and (2) reduced fitness from this significant amount of inactivity (see "Sitting is the New Smoking"). Additionally, many people "chest breathe" as opposed to "belly breathing." This is especially true of guys trying to look strong by puffing up their chest.
Chest Breathing means that only the upper parts of the lungs are filled when you breathe. An easy way to test this is to watch yourself breathe in a mirror (or simply look down at your chest when you breathe). Take a deep breath. Did your chest move more than your belly? If so, you performed a chest breath. Now, take a very deep breath until you see your belly lift (try breathing through your nose instead of your mouth). This is how you need to breathe every time to ensure adequate oxygen.
Why is Nose Breathing the Proper Method?
When you breathe, try to take deep breaths through your nose to the point that your belly moves more than your chest. This technique has many benefits over short, shallow
(1) "Nasal breathing (as opposed to mouth breathing) increases circulation, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slows the breathing rate and improves overall lung volumes."
(2) "The lungs are a primary source of our energy level. They extract oxygen from the air we breathe primarily on the exhale. Because the nostrils are smaller than the mouth, air exhaled through the nose creates back pressure when one exhales. It slows the air escape so the lungs have more time to extract oxygen from them. When there is proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, the blood will maintain a balanced pH. If carbon dioxide is lost too quickly, as in mouth breathing, oxygen absorption is decreased."
(3) "Nose breathing imposes approximately 50 percent more resistance to the air stream in normal individuals than does mouth breathing, resulting in 10-20 percent more O2 uptake."
(4) A slower breathing cadence can help to reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.
(5) Our nose contains both good and bad bacteria. By breathing through your nose, your body will help the good bacteria to dominate the bad, but breathing through your mouth allows for the bad bacteria to typically dominate.
(6) Your nose has natural air filters (all that hair in there) and helps to clean the air you breath (see Air Pollution: Reduce the Choking")
Breathing through your nose when you can isn't always enough. Usually, we have reduced mobility in the areas that need it to get the most of proper breathing techniques: diaphragm and stuck abdominal muscles (these can be tight even if you don't have a 6 pack).
How do you loosen up these muscles? The easiest is to lay belly down on an inflated ball, roll it from side-to-side and breathe deeply. Watch this video for a detailed explanation. Certain types of yoga poses and mobility drills during which you bend side-to-side will also help.
My favorite breathing exercise is a practice called the Wim Hof Method. Wim Hof is a Dutch breathing master, world record holder, and mental awareness guru. His method although simple, involves several components we will not discuss here (e-mail me or check out his site for more info).
A basic way to introduce yourself to it is to sit or lay down in a comfortable position on the floor. It's best if your back is against a hard surface and there's nothing around you that could injure you should you faint (unlikely to happen).
(1) Take 30 deep breaths in a natural rhythm: breath all of the way in and all of the way out. After about 15-20 breaths, you will feel a little tingly. This is complete normal and is your body's way of telling you that there is now enough oxygen in your blood. Continue to 30 breaths.
(2) On the last breath, breath all of the way out and then hold your breath (without breathing in again). You'll be very surprised at how long you can hold your breath with all of this extra oxygen in your bloodstream.
(3) Repeat 2-3 times
After this session, you will feel very relaxed. You've also now made sure that your lungs are expanding as much as possible for about 15-20 minutes, which will help to mobilize your abdominal core. It's important to note that you should never try the above anywhere near water (e.g a pool, bathtub, big puddle on the floor) or while driving or operating machinery. There have been instances where people have passed out in water or while driving, which is obviously not good. Best to do this in your bedroom (or even on your bed).