Optimal deep breathing increases our vitality and promotes relaxation. Unfortunately, when we try to take a so-called deep breath, most of us do the exact opposite: we “take a breath” suck in our bellies and raise our shoulders. This is shallow breathing as measured by volume as it tries to access air from the high chest where there is to little to no lung volume
When our breathing is full and deep, and mostly in the lower thorax, the belly, lower ribcage and lower back where most of the lung volume resides, should all expand in a full circle on inhalation, thus allowing the diaphragm to drop down deeper into the abdomen, front, side and back. Then it retracts on exhalation, allowing the massaging action of the diaphragm to move fully upward toward the heart. This is healthy deep breathing.
Most so called deep abdominal breathing results in deep effortful breathing and is not always really breathing deeply. It can actually be harmful or exacerbate existing, undetected, unbalanced, dysfunctional breathing. Deep breathing when done incorrectly will cause accessory breathing muscles to engage. These muscles should not be anything but supportive. Like the shaft of an elevator should guide the elevator but not cause it to go up and down.
The key to deep breathing is to begin to learn to sense unnecessary tension in our bodies and to learn how to release this tension. Work with deep breathing begins with and requires internal awareness. Without sufficient awareness and heightened sensitivity to what is happening inside our bodies, efforts to change breathing will have little to no effect, often creates more tension and stress and undermine our health and well-being.
The way we use “breathing exercises” has reference to breathing patterns (holding, gasping, sighing), breathing rate, breathing depth (volume), locus of breathing (chest and diaphragm), breathing coordination, sequencing and balance (relationship of upper and lower aspects of the breathing wave), breathing resistance (nose and mouth), and collateral muscle activity for breathing regulation (muscles other than the diaphragm such as those in the rib cage as well as supporting posture).
The downward and upward movements of the diaphragm, combined with the outward and inward movements of the belly, ribcage, and release of lower back musculature, allow for movement, “massage” , detoxifying nearby organs, and helps stimulate blood flow and peristalsis as well as pump the lymph more efficiently our lymphatic system. The lymphatic system has no pump other than muscular movements of human activity including the movements of the rib cage and diaphragm.
Deep Breathing for Relaxation
Many of us do not take enough time to breathe. This is very stressful to the nervous system. This shallow breathing causes an under-energized state and for muscles to shorten and invite unbalanced breathing.
When our breathing is deep and easy involving the respiratory muscles of the chest and belly, lower ribcage, and lower back–our breathing naturally slows down but due to no vasoconstriction stays deeper where it needs to be even during severe challenges including survival. This slower, deeper lower breathing, combined with the rhythmical pumping of our diaphragm, abdomen, and belly, helps modulate our parasympathetic nervous system–our “relaxation response”. Such breathing helps to harmonize our nervous system and reduce the amount of stress in our lives. It also supports states of what might be called “courage under fire”.
Breathing mechanics for relaxation, though a major marker for therapeutic process, is too often the exclusive focus of breathing training and learning. Ease is more important than relaxation as ease and flow facilitate relaxation but relaxation does not necessarily foster ease and flow.
Though slower breathing is most often better than faster breathing many therapists and trainers who teach breathing can deregulate respiratory chemistry by inducing over breathing/unbalanced breathing with their “relaxation” instructions to trainees i.e. slowing down the breathing without balancing it and not ensuring it has become parasympathetically dominant.
This often results in worsening respiratory faults (rib cage distortions), or hindering optimal breathing balance and coordination as well as confusing the client/ patient by inducing system-wide psycho-spiritual and psycho-physiological stresses.
To think of breathing more than usual as being all bad is to suppress elements of passion and purpose inherent in the way we breathe. Overbreathing may be too broad a term and not allow for what I call healthy hyper-inhalation (breathing more than usual but staying parasympathetically based).
This way of breathing more but staying parasympathetically based may account for phenomena called the Law of Mass Action whereby the extra oxygen can be “packed” into the body tissues for later recovery and usage. This is not taken into account with most definitions of overbreathing. Overbreathing to me is more about chest breathing that causes or worsens vasoconstriction including excessive nerve enervation and muscle tensions.
That said, Optimal Breathing School faculty member Dr. Peter Litchfield helps clarify facts to remember that may well apply to the correct applications of what is called overbreathing:
The wrong combination of breathing rate, depth and balance can lead to “over breathing.” Over breathing means losing too much carbon dioxide, CO2 deficit means blood alkalosis, and alkalosis means smooth muscle constriction. Smooth muscle constriction means blood vessel, bronchiole, coronary and gut constriction. Over breathing can reduce mental and physical performance and trigger emotional and physical symptoms.
* Myth: Good breathing means relaxation.
* Fact: No. Good breathing is important in all ircumstances, whether relaxed or not.
* Myth: Learning good breathing requires relaxation.
* Fact: No. This would mean that during most life circumstances, breathing is maladaptive. There still must often be a window of balanced breathing within the ranges of life’s circumstances and that often has the look and feel of being “centered” or “grounded” or both.
* Myth: Diaphragmatic breathing is synonymous with good breathing.
* Fact: No. In many instances one may begin to over-breathe as a result of switching from chest to diaphragm.
* Myth: Good respiration is all about the mechanics of breathing.
* Fact: No. Good breathing means ventilating in accordance with metabolic requirements.
* Myth: Diaphragmatic, deep, slow breathing means better distribution of oxygen.
* Fact: No. Mechanics may look letter perfect, but oxygen distribution may be poor.
* Myth: Under breathing/shallow breathing, with the result of oxygen deficit or loss of personal power is common.
* Fact: Yes but also to the contrary, over breathing is common.
Good breathing translates into optimizing respiratory psychophysiology, and contrary to popular thinking, learning to breathe well does not simply mean deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing in the context of learning how to relax.
Adaptive breathing mostly means regulating blood chemistry, through proper ventilation of carbon dioxide, in accordance with metabolic and other physiologic requirements associated with all life activities and circumstances. Deregulated, unbalanced breathing chemistry, i.e., hypoScapnia (CO2 deficiency) as a result of over breathing means serious physiological crisis involving system-wide compromises that involve physical and mental consequences of all kinds.
Evaluating, establishing, maintaining, and promoting good respiratory chemistry is extremely important in any professional practice involving breathing training.
Monitoring good breathing chemistry establishes a system-wide context conducive to help optimize health and maximize performance.
Breathing training is invariably included as an important component of relaxation training, but does not in of itself constitute optimal relaxation or optimal respiration. Optimal breathing implies ALL factors are in place in any moment in time.
At least 9 factors must be addressed to ensure optimal deep breathing. Priority is dependant upon the condition and situation.
1. Breathing chemistry including exchange from lungs to blood, blood to lungs and oxygen transport to all other cells of body.
2. Diaphragm excursion.
3. Rib expansion.
4. Ease of the natural breathing reflexive action including breathing coordination.
7. Attitude & Emotions.
8. Tasks at hand such as resting, walking, talking, running, feeling or expressing joy and fear.
9. Dominant parasympathetic balance
Each one influences the others.
One may be more necessary at any given moment depending upon several circumstances such as stress and or the task at hand. Optimal breathing can present itself during times of stress and challenge even where relaxation is neither possible nor adaptive. Training for various tasks alters the ratios and needs for each of the 9 basic influences as it inputs a conditioning factor that changes mechanical and cellular needs in the moment.