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Healthy Breathing Techniques

Breathing Techniques

One of the first and most important screens I will perform on my patients is to simply watch how they are breathing. This may seem trivial, almost none of my patients come to me because  of their breathing, but it is usually one of the major underlying factors of neck, low back and shoulder pain.

It can also affect the quality of your sleep, mood, digestion, cardiovascular health and even your teeth and facial structure!

Breathing is the most important task we perform while alive.

No breath, no life. But very few of us are even aware HOW we breathe throughout the day and the detrimental issues that can arise from this lack of awareness.

Lets start with what a correct breath should look like.

  1. Lay on your back with your neck supported and a pillow under your knees.
  2. Place on hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage on your belly
  3. Inhale through your nose, notice which hands rise
  • (a)If your hand on your chest raises with your inhalation then you are a chest breather and we     need to work on this.
  • (b) If both hands move you are accessing your diaphragm a bit but still too much movement in the rib cage.      
  • (c) If your belly raises and the hand on your upper chest remains still then we are on the right track

Now Let talk about what happens with crappy breathing techniques.

First and most important our breath can alter our nervous system. When we spend most of the day breathing through our chest we are using what are call the ‘secondary muscles of respiration’. This type of breathing is designed for us to get quick short breaths in and out while under times of stress (scared, running for safety, intense exercise). During these scenarios this breathing activates our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which is necessary when we need it, but it is not necessary while we are at work (most on the time), watching TV, eating dinner, sleeping, or almost 90+% of the day you are not running for your life.

Having our sympathetic nervous system on for larger parts of your day keeps the body in a perpetual state of reaction and anxiety. Another disadvantage of chest breathing is a decreased intake of oxygen which can cause issues like decreased energy, increase cardio vascular effort – because the blood vessels have to contract to deliver oxygen poor blood to your tissues, and decrease brain output (the brain user 20% of the oxygen we consume).

So why do we breath this way if it is so detrimental to our health?

Some common things that happen are:

  1. Just not aware of a correct/ incorrect way to breath
  2. We sit A LOT! This give our bellies less room to expand and chest breath because the preferred method.
  3. We are taught not to stick out our bellies. This is way more common with females who were always told by their mothers/ grand mothers to ‘suck it in’.
  4. We live very busy, stressful lives. We are over scheduled, have work stresses, home stresses, financial stresses, and a million appointments, sound familiar? Although our lifestyles are important to us, 99.999999% of all our stressors are non life threatening, which means diaphragmatic breathing can be used as a tool to calm our nervous system down, oxygenate our bodies for our tasks at hand, and most importantly keep our fight or flight system in check thought the day.

Why is it bad to have our sympathetic nervous system  overwork?

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our pupils dilate, our breathing becomes, shallow and rapid, our digestion, immune system, reproductive system, and cell rebuilding all come to a halt. This happens because our amazing bodies are redirecting all of our resources to our sense organs and into our muscular system in order to run or fight.

The body is no longer concerned with long term goals of digesting, killing harmful microbes, creating new cells or reproducing. It’s only concerned is with the stressors at hand. This is great if you are running from a bear or to safe your child’s life, but how often does that happen? Almost never. But yet, a lot of us live our lives in this state year after year.

The cool thing is, just taking a few correct diaphragmatic breaths can soothe your sympathetic nervous system and active the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) where your body can then focus on the processes that lead to years of health and vitality.

So if you are going to do something about 20,000 times a day, you might want to make sure you are doing it correctly. Here are the points of proper breathing.

1. Breath through your nose. Your nose warms and filters the air before it makes it way into the lungs. Air through your mouth is unfiltered and cold, making you lungs work harder.  If it is difficult to breathe through your nose, it may be because your body is used to breathing through your mouth, but if you stick with nasal breathing you can actually open your nasal passages quickly.

2. Breath with your Diaphragm. Your inhalation should go all the way down into your belly,  shoot for below your belly button. This means you are accessing your diaphragm, which has many benefits.

  • First off, the gas exchange is much more efficient which means more oxygen into your system leading to more energy and vitality.
  • Secondly, when the diaphragm opens to allow air into the lungs it massages the internal organs giving them gentle movement that moves stagnant fluids. This also improves digestion by massaging the stomach and intestines improving peristalsis (the act of food moving through your digestive tract).
  • Last one I am going to mention here (there are many more benefits) is diaphragmatic breathing dose not require the rib cage to be lifted in-order to inhale, which relaxes the muscles of the neck and shoulders that would normally be overworking with those 20,000 breathes per day.

3. Breath silently and rhythmically. Erratic, loud breathing sets the tone for stress in your body and increased heart rate.  Therefore, your goal should be to inhale and exhale as slow and long as possible without straining. Try inhaling for 2-4 seconds, then exhaling for 4-6 seconds with a 2-3 second pause before the next inhalation. After practicing regularly, start to lengthen the inhale, exhale and pause even longer. To be able to breath quietly you need to slow the rate of air in and out of your nose, which automatically creates a slow, steady, effortless breath cycle. – your natural way breathing!

Tying it all together

  1. Its really important for your overall health to breath properly
  2. Make sure you breath through your nose only. *unless you are performing other breathing exercises
  3. Place your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth just behind you front teeth. This is where your tongue should rest all day unless you are using your mouth for chewing, drinking or talking.
  4. Set up reminders to check your breathing. It can take a bit of conscious effort to reverse your breathing pattern so regular check-in’s are necessary to keep you on track. I tell patients to place something at their desk, in there car, in the kitchen, etc. that will remind them to check their breath cycle. A few focused breaths can get you out of your chest breathing and reinforce proper breathing.
  5. Use in stressful situations. When we are under stress and our sympathetic nervous system is activated, use a few breaths (or a few minutes) of focused breaths to decrease your over active nervous system and allow you to navigate the situation from a more calm, centered space. 
  6. Can help you fall asleep easier. If your mind is particularly active while you’re trying to get to sleep, start focusing on your breath and follow the air in and out of your nose and pay attention to any sensations that arise in your body.  The very process of observing your breath tends to calm the relentless thoughts of your mind, clearing the way to drift off to sleep.