Most of us are pretty confident that we know how to breathe. I mean, chances are that you're doing it right now. Am I right? Thought so. And as you're still around to read this, then you must be doing an at least okay job of it.
But 'okay' and 'optimal' are rarely the same things. While you're probably surviving well enough, there's a good chance that you could improve your breathing technique and in doing so find you have more energy, better sleep, more endurance and better all-round health.
Diagnosing Your Breathing
First though, let's see how your breathing is right now. To do this, place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen (abs).
Now breathe in deeply and take in as much oxygen as you can and think does your right hand move first and most, or your left? If you find your right hand moves the most then that means you're breathing through your chest. Could do better!
Babies Are Great at Breathing
Compare this to the way a newborn child breathes and you'll see that they actually move their stomach first. They breathe by using their diaphragm the sheet of muscle between the thoracic and abdominal cavities and drawing it downwards into the abdominal cavity. This in turn causes the lungs to expand, creating a vacuum that causes air to get drawn in. This is correct. Babies are excellent breathers. Babies also use their intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs that you use to move the rib cage), but these are secondary to the diaphragm.
Breathing from your 'belly' makes a lot more sense for a number of reasons. For starters, the diaphragm opens up the lower half of the lungs which are more efficient than the upper portion of the lungs. If you're breathing with only your chest, then you're losing out on 13% of your potential oxygen intake with each breath. That's not great for your overall health and it's certainly not ideal for optimal athletic performance.
Breathing correctly through the stomach will not only increase your oxygen supply thus aiding the supply of energy and nutrients around your body, but it will also reduce hypertension helping you to feel more relaxed and avoiding muscle soreness and 'knots' in your spine. It reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) which will leave you feeling more relaxed but also elevate your levels of testosterone and growth hormone leading to more muscle mass and fat burning. Breathing this way can help to reduce issues such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
So What Happened?
Well, you can blame your office job. And commute. And Breaking Bad (or Game of Thrones whatever your thing is). Point is that we now spend far too much time sitting. This in turn means our stomach gets all crumpled up (it also damages our posture and gait in numerous ways but we'll get into that later) and it means that our diaphragm can't move the way it should and as such we start to get used to breathing with our chest instead.
Fixing Your Breathing
So how do you go about fixing this problem and getting your breathing back to the way it should be?
Step one is to know what you should be doing.
So put your hands back on your stomach and chest, but this time breathe by simply letting your stomach extend. This will naturally pull in air and your chest will follow afterwards.
Now on the way back out, you're going to contract your abs (the transverse abdominis which runs as a ring around the middle of your stomach) and pull them inwards in order to push the diaphragm back up and exhale out.
Here's the great part this turns the simple act of breathing into an exercise for your transverse abdominis, and when you strengthen that part of your core, you not only support your posture more, but it also gives you a flatter stomach.
The problem is integrating this type of breathing into your lifestyle. Step one: sit up straighter at work and stand straighter when walking. Step two: practice.
Now I know that introducing something like this into your routine isn't going to be exactly easy as let's be honest once you've done it once it's going to be pretty boring.
The solution then is to use this kind of exercise at the same time as doing something else. And the ideal option here is to use deep breathing while meditating, or just before falling asleep. You'll find it actually helps greatly in both these pursuits, and ultimately you'll find that you start to breathe the correct way more and more often throughout the day.
And once you feel the benefits for yourself, you aren't going to want to turn back.