How do you breathe? It’s not something we usually think about, yet it has an incredible influence on how we feel, both physically and mentally. Everything we do is powered by the oxygen we absorb when we breathe. Why we don’t take a few minutes every day to focus on breathing is beyond me. In fact, let’s do that right now. Stop reading, sit back in your chair and fill your lungs; really consider what your body is doing to draw air in. Hold that breath for a moment, and push it back out.
Done? Welcome back. First, I’m betting you’re feeling at least somewhat refreshed. Second, how were you breathing? Let me guess: your chest puffed out, your shoulders rose, and you pulled your stomach in as you inhaled, while everything relaxed as you exhaled. This is how we’re taught to breathe at a young age, so, for most people, this is the natural way to inhale and exhale. Unfortunately, we have all been lied to because this is entirely opposite to the way our bodies are predisposed to breathe.
The diaphragm is the major muscle involved in respiration, and it’s located right below the lungs near the solar plexus; this is the muscle responsible for expanding and compressing the lungs. The diaphragm stretches down toward the pelvis (which also pushes your abdomen out a little) to fill the lungs to the bottom and relaxes to its original position when you exhale. This is what the diaphragm is supposed to do. The way we are taught to breathe actually forces us to do the opposite: using the chest and neck muscles to expand and compress only the top lobes of the lungs. These muscles aren’t meant for continuous respiration and using them as such inevitably prevents us from filling our lungs to capacity. These upper body muscle tend to become overtired and distressed over time as well. Interesting, right?
If you ever watch an infant or a pet breathe, especially when they’re asleep, you can see their stomachs puff out because they breathe with their abdomens rather than their chests. Unfortunately, as we grow, we learn to breathe with our chest and tend to forget about abdominal breathing—unless we are taught otherwise. The good news is we can still re-learn how to breathe properly as adults. All it takes is spending a few minutes a day focusing on expanding the stomach and keeping the chest still while breathing. With consistent practice it can, again, become your body’s automatic breathing reflex. Breathing naturally has been shown to reduce the body’s stress responses, as opposed to chest breathing, which activates them and causes stress-related problems such as anxiety, hypertension, and headaches. So, if stress is bearing down on your shoulders and you’re feeling tense, try breathing with your diaphragm for a few minutes. It can do wonders for your well-being.