Healing, prevention from disease and efficiency of the human body is maintained by a lifetime of richly oxygenated blood supplied to the organs, structures and systems. Many symptoms of poor health have their root cause in the fact that oxygenation and circulation of the blood is poor. It is then that the internal organs, muscles, nerves and glands are not sufficiently nourished, digestion and circulatory systems are stressed, the excretory system does not function properly and the whole body is affected.
Proper breathing is instrumental in maintaining mental and intellectual health, too. While aiding digestion and energy levels, we will be able to work longer hours and be more calm and relaxed while dealing with the daily stresses of life. Unfortunately, most people employ shallow, upper chest breathing which is not as effective and beneficial as diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing from the upper chest and shoulders is inadequate, lazy and very seldom is the blood sufficiently oxygenated.
We are always compressing our diaphragms which diminishes our lung capacity. Poor posture, no training, lack of dedication or understanding of that training, too much sitting and slumping at our desks, tight fitting clothing, or, the fear of looking fat causes this lack of efficiency. Likewise, people with an inferiority complex may draw their shoulders forward, pressing their chest together, further perpetuating the habit of inefficient oxygenation.
During breathing, air is drawn into the lungs where it fills tiny air sacs called alveoli which then feed the air to a sinuous network of blood vessels. The blood absorbs the oxygen and transports it to every cell in our bodies. As the air is absorbed, carbon dioxide and other waste products are released from the cells back the lungs, then into the air. Exhalation is just as important as inhalation. There needs to be a balance between the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood for both health and control purposes.
The Diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle system. It is fastened to the lowest ribs on the sides, the bottom of the sternum, and to the back at the top of the lumbar region. Its primary function is as an inhalation muscle. The diaphragm is not weak. It cannot be. It is used every minute of every day. There is no exercise that can be done that isn’t already being done, to strengthen it. No matter your body size and condition, your diaphragm is strong. In order to breath more efficiently, what is needed is to learn to control the diaphragm and the secondary muscles that aid in moving the ribs and lungs.
Upper Chest Breathing
Quite often, when someone is out of breath, they are not actually out of air. They have merely lost control of the air they already possess because of a collapsed diaphragm. When the ribs or shoulders raise during inhalation, this is called upper chest breathing and is insufficient because only a small amount of air reaches or enters the lungs. The full capacity of the lungs is not realized. The person who engages in this type of breathing tends not to be able to sustain long breaths because they don’t have enough air in the lungs to begin with, and, when they expel that air, they collapse their chest and lower their shoulders causing the air in the lower lungs to become trapped. Breathing this way can actually cause you to gasp and run out of breath even though you are trying to breath more. More air will begin to be trapped in the upper chest, too. Increasingly, the mechanics of breathing are thrown off and accessory muscles of respiration such as shoulders and neck are called into play. These muscles are only meant to be used in emergencies. Alone, they are inefficient.
The lungs are meant to be filled lengthwise, not widthwise. By breathing from the upper chest, only the widened sections of the upper lungs are accommodated with air.
Abdominal Breathing or Belly Breathing. The diaphragm is one of the largest muscles in the body and is designed to perform maximum work with minimal effort. When the diaphragm is lowered, the base of the lungs are filled with air to their capacity. As the shape of the diaphragm changes, it stretches the lungs lengthwise and distributes air evenly throughout the lungs. When the diaphragm muscle contracts, it creates a vacuum which effortlessly draws air into the lungs. When you stop contracting, the lungs deflate passively. If you are gasping for air, you are doing something wrong.
Breathing Exercises (best not done after a large meal)
Lie down on the floor, facing up. Relax. That is very important. It allows you to conserve energy by slowing your body’s metabolism and in turn, reduces the amount of oxygen your body requires. Inhale normally through your nose. Remember that the nose helps to warm, filter impurities from, and moisten the air you inhale. Notice that your shoulders and neck are not needed for breathing. The trick is to maintain that form while standing. You may experiment by putting a Kleenex box or book on your chest and seeing if it goes up and down. Place another one on your stomach. The one on your stomach should achieve the most elevation as you push it upward with your stomach muscles and draw air into your lungs. Don’t be alarmed if your chest expands a little, too. The ribs have small muscles between them called intercostals. They aid in contracting the chest to aid in moving the air out of the lungs.
Stand up. Place one hand over your chest and the other hand over your abdomen. As you breath, push from your abdomen. Notice that your abdomen hand moves outward. If your chest hand moves out, you are still chest breathing.
Picture a dresser with three or four drawers. You don’t want to open the top two or three. Imagine that you are opening only the lower one. That is what your breathing should look like.
Now, ideally, your chest doesn’t collapse, but stays slightly expanded. By having an expanded chest, you are creating more space for oxygen to effortlessly fill. By collapsing your chest with each exhalation, you have to use valuable energy and time to re-expand. That is one of the reasons why some singers drag or are late on entrances. By the time they force their chest back open, a fraction of a beat has already gone by. But for now, until you know how to breath from the diaphragm, try not to move the chest.
Learning to breath from the abdomen is the key to breathing easier. It may take time and effort to master, but once you do, you will discover that you can breath easier, more efficiently and you will have more energy.
Other Ways to Aid In Breathing
General Body Condition. The key to breathing more efficiently is conditioning. More specifically, endurance. Not in the lungs or lung function but in the body’s general musculature. Muscles are in charge of oxygen utilization and carbon dioxide production. If they are inefficient, unconditioned, or have not had endurance training, they can slow down the amount of oxygen the lungs can filter into the bloodstream. This too can lead to a shortness of breath. Flexibility and increased mobility of your muscles and joints are necessary components to overall health. Muscle toning, strength building, and endurance building exercises are a key component to any breathing program just as proper breathing is a key component to muscle maintenance.
Posture. Whether standing or sitting, you must be in a position that helps your breathing muscles work most efficiently. Essentially standing or sitting with proper posture will be taking the load off of you other muscles that are not designed to be involved in the breathing process.
Experiment with posture while you sing or breath. Start by standing up straight and tall with your feet spaced at your shoulder width. Take a few preparatory breaths. Now hang your head forward with your chin touching your chest. Try singing or breathing while paying close attention to how your throat and chest feels.
Perform the same exercise, beginning with good form, but try it with your shoulders raised. Then with your shoulders forward. Try it bent over. Try it looking sideways. Try it while slouching in a chair. Try it slumped over a table.
Doing it the wrong way is often a good method in discovering the right way. Try each position slowly and be sure to alternate between good posture and poor posture each time so that your body gets used to feeling good and right. Then, always do it right.
Making your own lungs.
To further your understanding of how the lungs work, you may wish to build your own lungs, chest and diaphragm. Here are the materials you will need:
-A clear plastic bottle. Preferably made with thick or stiff plastic.
-One large balloon.
-Two small balloons.
-A two way or “Y” copper pipe. These can be found in the plumbing section of any hardware store.
-Two rubber bands.
Cut the bottom of the bottle off.
Attach your two small balloons to the “Y” pipe. You may wish to wrap the rubber bands around them to ensure that they stay on.
Insert the “Y” pipe into the bottle with the “Y” pointing down. Use the putty to seal and stabalize the top of the “Y” pipe which should stick out the top of the bottle.
Cut the bottom off of the large balloon.
Tie a knot in the neck of the balloon.
Stretch the cut end of the balloon over the open bottom end of the bottle.
Gently pull on the base balloon (your diaphragm lowering). Notice how the internal balloons (lungs) fill with air.
You can find these instructions on YouTube.