Breathing is something we rarely have to think about. Our bodies do a good job of handling that for us.
But what if I told you that you were doing it all wrong!
According to breath expert, Dr. Belisa Vranich, nine out of ten adults are not breathing correctly. That is, the way we are anatomically designed to breathe for full oxygen consumption. And over time this improper breathing can impact our health and wellbeing.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of breathing incorrectly. But the good news is that you can easily learn how to breathe the right way.
In this post, you’ll find out if you too are guilty of breathing incorrectly (and I’m 90% sure are), as well as why and how to change it.
Vertical vs. Horizontal Breathing
First, let’s find out what kind of breather you are. For a moment I want you to observe your breathing. Sitting up straight, take a few deep breaths. Notice where you feel the most movement. Is it your upper chest and shoulders that rise and fall as you inhale and exhale? If so, you’re in good company as this is how most of us breathe.
This is called vertical, or upper body breathing, and unfortunately, this is the wrong way to breathe. Sorry to break it to you!
On the other hand, if you feel your belly expand and contract while your chest and shoulders remain mostly still, congrats! You are a horizontal breather and you’re doing it right.
Now, you’re probably thinking: how can there be a right and a wrong way to breathe?? Especially since breathing is something that, for the most part, we’re not involved in. The body handles it without much thought from us.
The difference between these two ways of breathing is that one is the way we were anatomically designed to breathe and the other is how we’ve learned to breathe over time.
If you look at the way a baby breathes or even your pet, you’ll notice that it’s their stomach that moves up and down, not their chest and shoulders, when they are breathing. This is the way we are made to breathe. We’re born breathing this way, but something happens along the way that causes a change in our breathing habits.
But this change isn’t our fault. Our modern lifestyle has made it extremely difficult to maintain horizontal breathing. The shift from horizontal to vertical breathing generally happens between the ages of 5 to 10 and there are a few factors that contribute to this.
- Developing poor posture – sitting all day in school, hunching over a desk, and lugging heavy backpacks all have an impact on posture, which in turn affects the way that you breathe.
- Restricted stomach movement – you can’t breathe with your belly if it’s unable to move. Self consciously sucking in the stomach, wearing tight clothes, or even clenching your abs to in hopes of building core muscles all make horizontal breathing impossible. The air remains in the upper chest because it has nowhere else to go.
- Stress and anxiety – when you’re under stress one way the body reacts by speeding up your breathing with short, shallow breaths that only reach the upper lungs. Over time, this becomes a habit and leads to vertical breathing.
The Problem with Vertical Breathing
Ok, now you’re probably thinking: well I’ve been breathing this way for pretty much my entire life and I’ve been getting along just fine. What’s the big deal? Why change now?
Although it’s not a matter of life and death, there are many problems with vertical breathing to consider.
First, if you suffer from a lot of shoulder and neck pain that just won’t go away, your vertical breathing is likely contributing to your discomfort. Vertical breathing puts unnecessary strain on the shoulders and neck from overuse.
These muscles weren’t designed to be used in the breathing process. We have another muscle that is pretty much dedicated to this process which we will talk about in a few. But instead, your shoulders and neck are constantly in motion and over years or decades this can lead to a lot of pain and discomfort. This paired with our sedentary lifestyle of sitting at a desk all day is a bad combination.
Also keep in mind that the biggest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs is the lower section toward the bottom of the rib cage. When you breathe vertically, you only use the top part of your lungs and this significantly reduces the amount of oxygen you can take in. You’re forced to take shorter, more frequent breaths to try to get the necessary amount of air.
Remember, the body needs oxygen to function. It’s needed for cell regeneration, energy production, immunity, and more. So getting enough air is a pretty big deal.
Not only this, vertical breathing actually puts stress on the body. When you are taking these short, shallow breaths, the brain gets a message from the vagus nerve and interprets this as a sign of stress.
This activates a series of reactions, switching on the sympathetic nervous system, sending out stress hormones, and putting the body in fight or flight mode. This happens even if you’re not experiencing any stress on the outside. When the body is constantly in the middle of this stress response, it creates a host of other issues like digestive disorders, sleep disturbance, weight fluctuations, and even chronic illness.
Want to learn more about the impact of stress on the body? Check out my detailed blog post on this topic. You can find that here!
Horizontal or Diaphragmatic Breathing
Like I mentioned earlier, horizontal breathing involves your stomach expanding and relaxing as you inhale and exhale.
This type of breathing has various names. You may hear it referred to as abdominal or belly breathing. But it’s most commonly known as diaphragmatic breathing because of the involvement of the diaphragm, a key muscle in the breathing process.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle right under the lungs. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, allowing the lungs to fully expand. This downward motion into the abdominal region is what causes the stomach to expand as well.
Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Stress reliever – allows the body to relax and turn off the stress response, calming the body and mind and lowering the risk of stress-related conditions.
- Lowers heart rate and blood pressure
- Provides ample oxygen to support cell functioning
- Relieves pain
- Helps to improves posture
How to Breath Diaphragmatically
For most of us, diaphragmatic breathing doesn’t come naturally. It’s something that we have to relearn and practice. To try diaphragmatic breathing follow the steps below:
- Lay flat on your back with your knees bent.
- Place one hand on your upper chest near your heart and the other hand on your belly right below your rib cage.
- Breathe deeply in through your nose and imaging carrying the breath into your lower belly. You may have to force your abdomen to expand at first as you get used to this way of breathing. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise on the inhale, while the hand on your chest remains relatively still.
- Breathe out (through either nose or mouth), begin to tighten your abdominal muscles, and let your stomach sink back to its original position. You should feel your belly hand lowering and again your chest remains relatively still.
This will take some getting used to. I once did this exercise with a client and she commented that it felt bizarre! But that just shows how out of touch we are with our natural breathing process.
If you are having difficulty with getting the rhythm of the stomach movement and the breath, one thing you can try is breathing out first. Get rid of all the air and you will feel your stomach sink in. Breathe in after and you will feel your stomach fill with air and rise. That is the motion that you want to replicate.
Of course, you can also practice diaphragmatic breathing when upright and seated. But it is easier starting out to feel movement laying down.
Practice Makes Perfect
We’ve been breathing with our chests for so long, it’s not something we can just switch off. Diaphragmatic breathing is something that will take some practice. You can also use it as a relaxation tool, specifically when you are feeling anxious or stressed to help your body and mind calm down.
I practice diaphragmatic breathing whenever I remember! These are some key time that I try to focus on it throughout the day:
- Anytime I’m feeling stressed or anxious
- During meditation
- While eating (relaxation helps with digestion)
- Before going to sleep
You can also incorporate restorative breathing practices into your routine such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other forms of breathwork. These will encourage your body to get into the habit of breathing deeply and diaphragmatically.
Even though it’s not something we think about often, breathing is critical and more complex than we realize. Breathing gives us the oxygen we need for survival, but also, when done correctly, serves as a useful tool for regulating our wellness.
It takes some practice to breathe diaphragmatically, but even just incorporating it a few times throughout the day will have major benefits on your body and mind. Give it try!