How often do you really think about HOW you breathe? If you have ever taken a yoga or meditation class breathing patterns are typically a large part. In our day to day lives, however, our breath tends to get lost in the rush of the workday. We usually only pay attention to our breathing when being physically active. We rarely spare a thought for the connection between how we breathe and how we feel physically and mentally.
In school we all leaned about the CO2 and oxygen exchange that takes place in the lungs. We know that our bodies need oxygen to function. Some brain cells start dying after only five minutes without oxygen. There is a great deal of research on the connection between breathing and panic disorders. According to some of the articles I found breathing right can help someone reduce or even halt a panic attack. Breathing is far more important than we usually give it credit for.
So most of us know the basics of why and how we breathe. One thing we are not taught is that society has changed how we breathe. Corsets anyone? Why do you think we have furniture called "fainting couches" and such things as "smelling salts"? It was because the clothing of the time prevented breathing in such a way that ladies would literally pass out just to rest. Even in today's society it is considered unattractive to expand the belly when breathing. We have become hyper sensitive and self conscious about our tummies. In keeping our bellies flat (and usually sucked in), we change which muscles we use and the amount the lungs expand.
This picture shows using the diaphragm (a giant muscle that is like an umbrella under the ribs) to breathe. The diaphragm is the main muscle we should use for breathing.
When we use the diaphragm to breath it acts like a pump of sorts. It contracts to help pull air into the lungs and expands to help push air out of the lungs. The more air we breathe in the more oxygen is absorbed into our blood and used to feed our bodies.
The way most of us typically breathe is by only expanding the upper chest area while keeping our bellies flat. This obviously works well enough - but part of the problem lies in the muscles being used. The diaphragm is supposed to be the major player in breathing. By only using the muscles of the neck and upper chest we don't use the diaphragm. Thus, the lungs are not used to full capacity. Also, we are overusing the muscles of the upper chest to try and do the work of the diaphragm. This in turn can create chronic pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. Muscles get cranky when overworked and over-stressed.
From the perspective of a massage therapist breathing is almost as important as the actual body work. When I am working with a client I use their breath as a gauge as to how I should change the depth of my pressure. If I am working on an area that is painful for the client, using the breath is a way to help the body relax into the work. If I feel them holding their breath and tensing up, I know I need to lighten up and let them adjust. Working against the body does more harm than good. How the client is breathing is an excellent indicator of their level of comfort.
As you go about your day today, take a few minutes to remember to breath. I've added a link to a really good video showing how to do diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing).