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Reclaiming your natural breath

posted 8 May 2015, 03:21 by Tim Elliston   [ updated 14 May 2015, 10:07 ]
By Phil Greenfield

How are you breathing right now?

Are you breathing right now...?

(We can assume that you are, otherwise the likelihood of us having this conversation would be quite slim.)

We can divide the activities of the human biological system into two categories - those activities that we are able to facilitate by way of VOLUNTARY control, and those that operate in an INVOLUNTARY way. For example, we can voluntarily wave a hand in the air, but would find it difficult to wilfully alter the rate of urine production by the kidneys. These involuntary processes will of course alter in relation to what we do - the heart rate will definitely increase if we choose to run up a hill, and more time in the bathroom will inevitably follow on from drinking six pints of fine English ale - but without those accompanying activities, your average Joe cannot alter such bodily processes via an act of will. Our breathing, however, is an interesting case, falling as it does into both categories.

Ignored, our breathing will continue to happen at the required rate, even when we are asleep. If we choose though, to bring our attention to the breath we can alter the rate of breathing - speed it up, slow it down, or even suspend it for a short time. This is because the muscles that facilitate the mechanics of breathing - primarily the diaphragm muscle - are available to being activated by voluntary control as well as being regulated automatically.

Try it out now. Close your eyes and bring you attention to your breathing. This is the breathing rate that has been trundling along nicely all on its ownsome whilst you’ve been going about your daily business. Once your attention is nicely settled on the breath, speed it up or slow the rate a little. Then hold your breath for a few seconds. When you have finished and then take your attention away from the breath and back to reading the article, you'll notice that your breath will not stop. The activity returns to the jurisdiction of your involuntary control systems. Smart eh?

The diaphragm muscle separates the contents of the thoracic cavity above (primarily heart and lungs), from the abdominal cavity (mainly digestive system). It’s a bit like a loose drum skin that sits horizontally in the form of a a dome between the two body sections. On inhalation, the muscle contracts and the dome becomes taut and flatter. This draws down the lungs (which are attached by intermediary tissues to the upper surface of the diaphragm) and the lungs fill with air. As the muscle relaxes, exhalation occurs, and the gas in the lungs is expelled. This rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm also has a health-promoting effect on the contents of the abdominal cavity, by rhythmically massaging the organs of the digestive system. The evidence of diaphragm movement can be seen (most obviously in animals and also tiny children, who have much less disordered breathing than adults) as the belly expands and falls back gently with each breath. This expansion of the belly is caused by the slight displacement of the abdominal organs as the diaphragm contracts and descends.

We do however have another breathing mechanism. This is called accessory breathing (or chest breathing). As the name suggests, this mechanism kicks in when we need a bit more air. When we are exercising vigorously and require a greater intake of oxygen, the lungs are caused to expand their volume even more with each breath, by way of a lifting and expansion of the rib cage itself. This primarily involves an elevation of the breastbone (sternum) by the muscles on the front of the neck, and results in the classic ‘heaving’ chest of that person who’s just run after and missed the Number 42 bus.

Now, with regard to our general well-being, here’s the rather interesting and very important bit (so put that packet of choccie biccies down just for a minute).

Stress (you know that one), which generally produces a mild and ongoing version of the physiological effects associated with what we call fear or anxiety, brings about changes in our normal relaxed breathing pattern.
  • When we are scared, anxious or stressed, the action of the diaphragm lessens, and we begin to chest breathe.
  • When we are scared, anxious or stressed the rhythm, depth and speed of our breath alters.
  • When we are scared, anxious or stressed we may start to retain or hold our breath.
It goes without saying that these effects will seriously alter biochemical and hormonal processes within our system (oxygen levels will be low, adrenaline levels high) but the big deal for me as a body worker is the serious detrimental effect that chronic chest breathing has on the postural mechanics and alignment of the body.

In people who are continually stressed (that’s you, by the way and about 100% of the people you know), accessory, or chest breathing becomes the predominant breathing mechanism.

Read the statement above a few times. It’s in big letters for a very good reason. Now put the book down, go and have a cup of tea and come back and read it a few more times. Come back to it every day and read it again. Copy it and pin it up on the wall of every room in your house. Set it up as a screen saver on your computer - paint it on the inside of your eyelids. In fact do anything to make sure that this bit of information becomes permanently installed in your memory bank.

If you value your life (which I’m sure you do) then this piece of information may well be the most important thing that you have ever received.

So what’s the big deal? Well, the issue is that the mechanical action of habitual chest breathing sets up abnormal muscle tensions in the whole body that eventually take the body a very long way away from good functioning, and which are at the root of many common chronic body pain problems. Once the body structure has become altered and compromised in this way, chest breathing becomes the default action. This means that even if the sources of stress and anxiety disappear from our lives, we will still feel stressed and anxious, as we have adopted all of the biomechanical and physiological characteristics of a stress-ridden being.

So if I could give one practice, or piece of advice that would go the furthest toward positive change in the health of an individual, what would it be? Abdominal breathing practice.

So let’s do it. The next five minutes could change your life for ever.

Abdominal Breathing

Lie down on your bed. Spend a minute or two just settling down.
Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
Allow all the breath to leave your body.
Take a SLOW and medium size breath in (through your nose if possible).
You should feel movement under your hands as your belly and/or chest rise toward the ceiling.
Breathe out in an unforced way allowing all the breath to gently leave your body - the belly and chest will sink naturally toward the bed.
Slowly repeat the process above a dozen or so times - take plenty of time and notice what’s happening under your hands, especially the hand on your belly.

You may find that your belly movement is quite full, or it may be absent, with all the action going on up in the chest. If there’s not much happening at the belly end, repeat the process above and tune in to the small movement in the belly.

Transfer both hands to the belly, and start to focus your attention into the movement of the belly as you breathe in and out.
Begin to disallow any movement in the chest as you breathe in, and you should find that you get more raising of the belly, which you will be able to feel under your hands.
You are now starting to use the diaphragm muscle more fully.

Once you have made a little progress and can feel the movement of the belly under your hands becoming a little more full and responsive, remove your attention from the sensation of your breathing and just rest gently for five minutes.

If you continue with this practice you should find that you are able to take control of the belly filling process to a deeper and deeper extent, the experience being that you are expanding into the lower part of your belly, and into the pelvis. You may also feel that you can expand your abdomen with the breath in all directions, like a barrel.

The particular exercise is definitely best performed whilst lying down - maybe before going to sleep at night. You may only get to ten breaths before dropping off! In this case it’s probably best to do the practice earlier in the day (and also do it at night as a way-of-getting-to-sleep thing!).


As with all breathing exercises, it’s best to start GENTLY and feel your way into a new way of being over a period of days or weeks. Start small, and gradually extend the practice, both in terms of...
  • the volume of the breath.
  • the number of times that you may practice a new exercise per week.
  • the length of time that you practice the exercise for.
ALWAYS breathe slowly when performing breathing exercises. There is a possibility that when you begin to change your breathing style you may experience a mild dizziness, as the oxygenation levels within your body go through some positive alterations. For this reason, always spend a couple of minutes breathing with no particular focus before moving from a horizontal position to a sitting position, and always sit for a minute prior to standing up and walking around.

Phil Greenfield