Develop Healthy Breathing Mechanics
Purpose: Developing healthy breathing may help to calm the nervous system, decrease anxiety and improve breathing-related health issues.
Healthy breathing involves the nervous system, muscular system, fascial system, and skeletal system. The nervous system listens to how the brain perceives the environment and will tighten or relax the muscles accordingly. The fascia, which wrap around each muscle and connect muscle groups together, will then tighten or relax in relation to the muscles. Chronic stress can cause the muscles and fascia to remain tighter than usual even after the mental stress is gone. When this occurs, the bones and joints may be unable to move as freely as before; and nerves, blood vessels, and organs may become compressed causing breathing dysfunction.
The mental practices in this section will remind and train the nervous system how it feels to use healthy breathing, and the physical practices will relax the muscles and fascia and train them to assist in healthy breathing. With practice, healthy breathing will begin to feel more natural and become the dominant way of breathing.
Practice: This practice may help someone to develop healthy breathing mechanics.
This Practice section covers the anatomy of breathing and how to train the nervous system, muscular system, fascial system, and skeletal system to develop healthy breathing.
At rest, healthy breathing should be 12 to 16 breaths per minute, with exhalation lasting slightly longer than inhalation, and a slight pause after exhalation before starting the cycle again. For example, twelve breaths per minute could involve a two second inhalation, three second exhalation and one second pause after exhalation. It is important to keep a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Carbon dioxide is produced by metabolic activity such as muscle use. Overbreathing can occur if metabolic activity stays the same, but the respiratory rate increases, which can happen when a stressful thought occurs while sitting at a desk. Overbreathing will cause too much carbon dioxide to be exhaled and will stress the nervous system leading to symptoms such as anxiety, lightheadedness, and muscle aches. Overbreathing can be overcome by practicing healthy breathing.
Breathing with the nose sends oxygen deeper into the lungs than does breathing with the mouth. Breathing with the nose engages the lower ribs which relaxes the nervous system, whereas breathing with the mouth engages the chest and stresses the nervous system because chest breathing is intended for times of exertion.
Sense: If breathing through the nose is not comfortable, then it may take several months of practice before it feels natural. To increase comfort, try the following visualization technique: Imagine slowly inhaling a pleasurable aroma through the nose. This may relax the nervous system, widen the nostrils and make inhalation more smooth.
The diaphragm is the primary muscle used in breathing and contributes 70% to 80% of the muscular activity when at rest. Inhalation pushes the diaphragm down about an inch and exhalation allows it to relax and move back up. The downward movement of the diaphragm during inhalation pushes the abdomen forward.
Sense: Place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the chest. Inhale through the nose and feel the abdomen expand, pushing up against the hand. Exhale through the nose or pursed lips and feel the abdomen sink in towards the spine. Proper diaphragmatic breathing will only cause the hand on the abdomen to rise and fall, while the hand on the chest remains still.
The crura are muscles that attach on the back of the diaphragm and on the front of the spine between the level of the diaphragm and waist. Tension in the crura can make the diaphragm work harder to move.
Muscles weave in and out of each rib. During each inhalation, these muscles allow the front of the lower rib cage to expand outwards and sideways and the back of the lower rib cage to expand backwards. Tension in the rib muscles can prevent proper expansion of the lower rib cage.
Sense: To sense the movement of the lower rib cage, try the following: Inhale slowly through the nose and feel if the front of the lower rib cage expands outwards and sideways and if the back of the lower rib cage expands backwards.
Relax: If the front of the lower rib cage did not expand forwards or sideways or if the back of the lower rib cage did not expand backwards, then there is tension in the rib muscles. To release this tension, try the following: Kneel on a comfortable surface with knees hip-width apart and big toes touching. Rest the forehead on the floor and allow the arms to rest wherever they are comfortable. During each inhalation, focus on expanding the front of the lower rib cage sideways and this should help the back of the lower rib cage expand backwards. Practice lower rib cage expansion throughout the day, when standing or sitting.
The scalene muscles run along both sides of the neck and attach to the first two ribs. They contract during inhalation, causing the first two ribs to rise. Tension in any of the other breathing muscles will cause the scalenes to work harder.
The abdomen contains the inner corset muscles and the outer corset muscles, which make up the “core” and play a large role in stabilizing the body.
Outer Corset Muscles
The outer corset muscles run vertically from the breastbone to the pubic bone and diagonally across the lower ribs and groin. Tension in the outer corset muscles will draw the chest and pelvis closer together and restrict movement of the diaphragm.
Sense: To sense the outer corset, lie on a comfortable surface and flatten the lower back against the floor. Now, do this same motion when standing to feel how a tucked pelvis and compressed chest restrict breathing.
The pelvic floor supports the abdomen and the stabilization and mobility of the spine and legs. It is a diamond shape and is defined horizontally by the two sit bones, pubic bone, and coccyx. The diamond is divided in half by a muscle, creating a front triangle from the two sit bones to the pubic bone and a back triangle from the two sit bones to the coccyx.
Sense & Relax: To relax the back triangle of the pelvic diamond, try the following: When standing, imagine tightening the back triangle, which will cause the pelvis to roll slightly backwards, lower back to flatten, and chest to drop. Now, imagine relaxing the back triangle, which will cause the pelvis to roll forward to neutral, lower back to move forward to neutral, and chest to lift. Practice relaxing the pelvic diamond when standing and sitting to achieve healthy posture.
Sense & Strengthen: To create a healthy sitting posture, try the following: Sit in an adjustable chair or add an ergonomic cushion if needed so that hips are slightly higher than knees and ankles are slightly in front of knees. Distribute 60% of the body’s weight on the thighs and the front of the sit bones and 40% of the body’s weight on the legs and feet. The pelvis should be rolled slightly forward so that the back triangle of the pelvic diamond widens and the pubic bone drops. The lumbar curve should move forward slightly to lift the chest and neck. The head should not extend forward past the front of the lifted chest. If working at a desk, then the desk should allow a slight incline from the elbow to the forearm. Wrists should be inline with the forearm as the fingers touch the keyboard. Eyes should be level with the top third of the computer screen. If needed, use a footrest to obtain these heights.
Sense: To sense the position of the pelvic floor when sitting in unhealthy sitting posture, try the following: Start by sitting in a chair using healthy sitting posture and then slouch. When slouching, notice that the body’s weight shifts to the back edges of the sit bones, the coccyx tucks under, the space within the pelvic diamond is compressed, the lumbar curve flattens, the feet support less weight, the rib cage rests on the abdomen and restricts movement of the diaphragm and rib cage, and the head leans forward and strains the neck.
Resources: Below are additional resources that may help someone to develop healthy breathing mechanics.
The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World by Mary Bond
Your Body Mandala: Posture as a Path to Presence by Mary Bond
Just Breathe by Dan Brule
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