by Lisa Perry
Obviously we all know how to breathe. Respiration is part of our autonomic nervous system and regulated by the medulla oblongata (image at right), located in your brain stem. Breathing, which is the intake of oxygen and output of carbon dioxide, is necessary for cellular regeneration and for brain function. Without thought, we take approximately 12-20 breaths every minute.
When we are calm, we breathe more slowly and deeply. When we are stressed, we breathe more shallowly and tend to hold our breath. Recent research has proven that our heartbeat increases slightly with each inhale and slows with each exhale. So if you hold your breath, you are actually increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Done habitually, this can affect your health in a negative manner.
Oxygen is one of the most important ingredients in our lives — without it we cannot live. Because it is so vital, we have many choices as to the manner in which we breathe. In addition there are many breathing techniques taught to help restore natural breathing patterns and calm the nervous system. But what are the most advantageous ways for us to breathe? In this article we will consider the biomechanical effects of our most common choices of breathing.
Neck or Shoulder Breathing
This is the most common breathing pattern present in our fast-paced, high-stressed modern world. People with asthma, allergies, and other breathing complications use this strategy to breathe. This is the quickest and most effortless way for the body to ensure oxygen is brought into the lungs. Neck or shoulder breathing is also known as shallow breathing. While this option keeps us alive, there are many downsides.
In this pattern, our neck and shoulder muscles are responsible for pulling the ribcage up and away from the diaphragm to draw new air into our lungs. Because the ribs move upward, the diaphragm doesn’t descend downward into our abdomen, thus the intra-abdominal pressure doesn’t really change. The constant use of this pattern can create neck and shoulder tension that can lead to cervical disc compression and nerve impingement in the shoulders. Another disadvantage is the limited amount of oxygen exchange that actually occurs in the lungs. Alveoli are the air sacs where carbon dioxide is exchanged for fresh new oxygen (below). While there are alveoli throughout the lungs, the majority of them are in the bottom portions. Because of the shallow nature of this breath there is only a limited amount of oxygen entering the body. This in turn means that we have to take more inhales to ensure we have enough oxygen. In this process the body is not so concerned with exhaling and we follow our short inhales with an even shorter exhale. This is where the increased heart rate and blood pressure can enter the picture as mentioned above.
Belly breathing is often prescribed for relaxing the tension in the abdominals. An advantage of this type of breathing is that it brings the focus to the abdomen, dropping breath from the shallow, upper chest breathing. Belly breathing can be very calming. If you’ve ever watched a baby sleeping you will note that they primarily belly breathe at rest. However it is not a technique to incorporate into everyday, vertical postures.
As we inhale during belly breathing, our diaphragm drops down to bring air in to the lungs. When our diaphragm moves downward, it presses the down on the organs and the relaxed belly allows them to come forward, thus the belly expansion. If you observe a child when they are wakeful and upright, you will notice that they no longer expand their bellies as fully. This is because of our bipedal relationship to gravity. Gravity automatically pulls the organs down into the pelvis; as the diaphragm moves downward into the abdomen this will create an increase of intra-pelvic pressure. This constant downward pressure weakens the pelvic floor and can create organ prolapse. Due to the relaxed state of our abdominal muscles during belly breathing our spine is not stabilized and allows more compression on our discs and gives us a greater chance of nerve impingements, bulging or herniated discs in the lower back. Thus, we recommend belly breathing only when lying on your back.
Rib or Posterior/Lateral Breathing
In rib or posterior/lateral breathing, our ribs expand three-dimensionally allowing our lungs to completely expand for maximum oxygen intake. In this 3-D expansion of our ribs, the diaphragm is also pulled three-dimensionally and flattened out. The abdominal and back muscles work to support the ribcage in this expansion and create stability for not only our spine, but our entire torso, pelvis, and whole body. In addition this process keeps our intra-abdominal and intra-pelvic pressures equalized creating an optimal environment for our entire structural being. Another great benefit of this breath is that our lungs are able to expand fully and oxygen is allowed to reach all the way down to the alveoli at the bottom for maximum carbon-dioxide/oxygen exchange. This expansion during our inhale in turn utilizes the elastic properties of our lungs to encourage a full exhale. With full inhales and exhales, our body contains a better balance of oxygen to carbon-dioxide which gives us the opportunity for clean cellular regeneration to promote less stress and better all around health.
Join Lisa Perry on Saturday November 7th at 9:30am for a workshop exploring how to achieve a more efficient breathing pattern. Guided movement and self-awareness exercises will help you feel more energized and focused.