Breathing is a unique process in the human body. It can occur voluntarily or involuntarily, be a conscious or unconscious decision, and is constantly responding to feedback from sensors in your body. Oftentimes our breath is being stifled by our emotional state, body position, or posture.
When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward expanding the chest cavity and giving the lungs space to expand. This simultaneously lifts the ribs and sternum. When you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and expands into the chest cavity, as the ribs and sternum lower.
The key muscles or primary movers in this process are the diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and abdominal muscles. Secondary mover muscles include upper trapezius, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, and pectoralis minor.
Poor posture, categorized by rounded shoulders and a forward head position can cause these secondary movers to become tight and overworked. This leads to a decline in respiratory function which can further exacerbate the breathing muscles and contribute to even worse posture.
To jump start your muscles involved in breathing try out this stretching and breath practice from Jill Miller at Yoga Tune Up: The Abdominal Vacuum.
So you might be wondering why you should worry about your breath when it’s so easy you can literally do it in your sleep?
Let’s start with the the one we all care about
- Improved performance.
A study at the University of Portsmouth showed that runners who performed inspiratory muscle warm-ups and training experienced a whopping 15% increase in performance after just 6 weeks.
Bringing a mindful focus to breath can also help improve energy. Individuals who practice deep breathing exercises report more energy, improved mental acuity, and getting a better night’s sleep.
An improvement in breath capacity will lead to a healthier digestive tract. The body has more energy to allocate towards digestion and is more efficient at eliminating toxins.
- Decrease Stress
Breathing techniques that are designed to bring increased awareness the breath can carry over to other areas of life. It trains the mind to be less emotionally reactive while simultaneously reducing cortisol levels.
- Heart Rate
Breathing practice has been shown to lower resting heart rate and blood pressure. Try deep belly breaths where the stomach fully expands and holding in at the full exhalation and inhalation points.
Many breathing techniques are geared towards unwinding, shutting down, and moving away from the flight or fight response we are used to feeling. Breath work also has many powerful applications to get us fired up.
When lifting heavy weights, a full belly breath can be held inside the abdomen throughout the lift. This Valsalva Maneuver provides internal pressure that supports the spine and braces the skeletal muscle throughout the lift. Limit this maneuver for maximal exertion efforts (eg. greater than 80% of your 1rm and 5 reps or less in your working set).
Breathing can also be used to prime your body into a peak state. Using rapid forced inhales and exhales through the nostrils will stimulate the immune system, increase circulation, and leave you feeling alive, alert, and awake.
Now that you know a little about how breathing affects your daily life and the systems of your body, what areas do you want to incorporate a breathing practice into? Whether its for our health, relaxation purposes, or to improve our athletic performance we could all benefit from taking a deep breath now and then!