How to Breathe

Did you know that you breathe between 17,000 – 30,000 times per day?1 Have you ever payed attention to how you breathe? 

Breathing is a very accessible and practical way to enhance mental and physical well being. Besides oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide elimination, breathing has many other benefits. Conscious breathing can help decrease stress, enhance muscle relaxation, and provide trunk stability.

There are many different breath practices. You can learn how to breathe for singing, speaking, running or swimming. Or you can learn different breathing exercises while engaging in mind-body practices like yoga, Pilates, meditation or martial arts. In this article we’ll discuss the anatomy of breathing, how breathing relates to posture and the need for breath awareness.

In with the air, out with the air
Simple, right?

Anatomy of Breathing

The central and autonomic nervous systems regulate breathing.  The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The autonomic nervous system’s job is to regulate various organs and systems in the body. It’s divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response. For instance, when you feel rushed at work, stressed in traffic or see a tiger in the wild. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” state. Like, while sleeping, taking a bath, or lost in a book on vacation.

The diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in respiration. It lays under the rib cage and even has small attachments to the lumbar spine. The diaphragm acts as both a respiratory muscle as well as a trunk stabilizer because it regulates pressure in the trunk. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and descends toward the pelvis increasing pressure in the torso allowing the lungs to fill with air. The rib cage also moves slightly to create space for the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm returns to its resting position and pressures in the torso are decreased.

Imagery of diahphragm moving
The diaphragm lowering to allow the rib cage to expand.

Along with the diaphragm, some of the muscles in the neck and abdominals are “accessory” breathing muscles. These muscles work in heavy, labored breathing (i.e. during fast running) or can be seen in dysfunctional breathing patterns. Sometimes, problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or cystic fibrosis cause difficulty breathing. In these conditions the accessory muscles are recruited to improve gas exchange.

Breath and Posture

Imagine a person sitting or standing with poor posture; picture the airway [nose ⇒ throat ⇒ lungs]. Could breathing be restricted or more difficult in poor postures? Absolutely.

Mary Massery PT describes how breathing, the diaphragm and the core work together to provide stability in the body. While accepting the Linda Crane Memorial Award she stated: “A soda pop can is strong only when it’s closed. The closed can allows internal pressures to stabilize its weak aluminum shell, much like our weak skeletal frame…….the ability to generate, to maintain, and to regulate pressures within the trunk (our aluminum shell) to allow the limbs to move efficiently and effectively off of that core stability.”3

soda can imagery
The diaphragm is an integral part of the core which provides stability for the trunk.

Poor Quality Breathing Affects Health

Studies show patients with lower back pain demonstrate less use of the diaphragm muscle while breathing.1 A study on yogic breathing revealed that yogic breathers had decreased pro-inflammatory markers in their saliva. Increased inflammation causes several health problems.2

Due to hectic schedules and always feeling on-the-go; breathing patterns become shallow, short and quick. Therefore, the “fight or flight” response is triggered more frequently. Chronic pain also triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Non-optimal breathing can happen from poor posture, but it also contributes to poor trunk stability and muscle control. Furthermore, it increases pain perception and neck and shoulder tension.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Most of us want to feel relaxed rather than stressed. Diaphragmatic breathing (a.k.a. belly breathing) is one technique to help us get into and remain in the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state.

Lying down, place one hand across your abdomen, and one hand across your chest. Slowly inhale through your nose allowing your belly hand to rise without too much rise in your chest or tension in your neck. Exhale through your mouth. Repeat.

If you feel your neck muscles tightening more than your belly rising, you could be using neck muscles to breathe. These accessory muscles shouldn’t be dominant during normal restful breathing.  

Steps to Improve Your Breathing Technique

  1. Pay attention. Awareness is the first step towards action.
  2. Practice. When you have some quiet time, sit or lie on your back and practice the diaphragmatic breathing technique.
  3. Make it functional.4 During your day use a household task (i.e. doing dishes, taking out the trash) to practice conscious breathing.
  4. Use breathing to de-stress: in the car, at work, at home, it’s so accessible — no equipment needed!

Focus on how you breathe to improve your posture, strength, stability and your ability to stay present. Intentional, conscious breathing will enhance both your physical and mental health.






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