This is easy to say but not necessarily easy to do at this current time. How often do you focus on your breath? Are you even aware of your breathing pattern?
Taking a breath should be easy, with our diaphragm doing most of the work, however for a lot of us our upper body and chest muscles are working too hard. This breathing pattern also creates tension in our shoulders, upper back neck muscles and into the jaw.
The more stressed and anxious we get, the more our breath suffers. Stress causes a shallow breath, and shallow breathing causes stress. Think when was the last time you sat quietly and focused on your breath? Research has shown that mindful breathing is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels.
Taking shallower breaths, mouth breathing, upper body breathing, holding our breath are all signs of stress. Long term shallow breath can cause fatigue, anxiety, lack of concentration, sleep problems and affect our immune system.
Our diaphragm is pretty amazing with a 360 degrees attachment from the front of the ribcage and the lower six ribs around to the back to the lumbar spine connecting into the central tendon. When we breathe in it contracts, lowers and flattens. This action increases the volume in the chest and makes room for the air coming into the lungs. It also changes the pressure in the lungs, pulling air into the lungs. On exhale, the diaphragm relaxes decreasing pressure in the thorax initiating exhalation. Think of a jellyfish moving fluidly with expansion and contraction.
Are you an upper chest breather?
Lie on the floor with your knees bent and place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Take a breath, which hand moves first? Does your hand on your abdomen move? Or is it just your hand on your chest that moves? Ideally, we would like to see the abdomen hand move first and more than the chest hand.
Now place your hands on your lower ribs either side of your body and take a breath. Do you feel your ribs expanding out into your hands as you take a breath? Did you not feel any movement? No movement is a sign of upper chest breathing.
We know that emotions can change our breathing pattern. Try sitting upright with your hands on your lower ribs at either side of your body. Take a couple of breaths and feel your ribs expand as the diaphragm flattens. Now think of something stressful and feel what happens to your breath and how this affects your ribs. The more stressed, the more we use our diaphragm to stabilise and brace, meaning no movement. We then have to use other muscles to expand our thorax and draw breath in; this usually results in the start of upper chest breathing.
Try this exercise to help with belly breathing.
Initially just do for 5 minutes a couple of times a day, it will feel strange at first and even a little frustrating, but it will get easier.
– lie on your back with your knees bent, and your head rested on a pillow.
– place one hand on your chest and one on your belly just below your rib cage.
– slowly inhale through your nose and feel your belly pushing against your hand.
– keep your other hand on your chest as still as possible.
– exhale using pursed lips (like you are blowing on hot food).
Once you get the hang of this start to count the seconds on your inhale and exhale, initially just noting the pattern without changing it and then playing with creating a longer exhale. Once you are confident with belly breathing lying on your back, take it to seated.