We don’t need to think about breathing, we even continue to breathe when we are unconscious (involuntary breathers). Dolphins, on the other hand, are voluntary breathers, meaning they have to decide when to take a breath. Becoming aware of how we breathe and how breathing is connecting our body and mind is the first step to discovering why breathing is your superpower – always available, for free and highly effective.
Breathing under stress
Our breath is controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain. Automatically, we don’t need to do anything – but we can. When we feel stressed, our breathing pattern and rate change, also automatically as part of the evolutionary “fight-or-flight response”. We are taking shallow and rapid breaths into the chest rather than all the way into our bellies. That’s a natural response to be ready and alert.
It can, however, increase the level of stress if we start to feel uncomfortable with this breathing pattern itself or have the feeling of not getting enough air. All too often this process happens without us even recognising the connection to breathing, after all, there’s something else on our mind at that moment. At a time like that, body functions such as the response of the immune system or digestion, are having a lower priority. So, not a healthy state to be in for very long.
We all have been overwhelmed by situations and emotions one way or another. Madly crying, highly agitated or simply furious, all have an impact on our breathing. Maybe somebody told us to “take a deep breath” or “just breath slowly” and hopefully you noticed that focusing on breathing in and out deeply and slowly, actually calms you down.
The connection between body and mind works both ways. As soon as we start to change our breathing pattern consciously, we signal the brain that we have the situation under control, resulting in feeling less stressed. Be kind. Be patient. Quickly and forcefully changing your own breathing pattern can lead to disruption, rather than the desired correction.
But being able to lift yourself up is definitely worth working on. Breathing plays an important role in many relaxation techniques from yoga and meditation to mindfulness and other stress relief techniques and, of course, diving. For some people focusing on their breath is actually having the opposite effect (enhancing anxiety levels and panic).
Breathing in diving
If somebody doesn’t feel right underwater, the number one thing to do is: Eye contact and make sure the breathing is under control. The easiest and most effective way is breathing together, deeply and slowly to get calm and relaxed. The best way is to use one of your hands to signal the rhythm: Place your hand in front of your regulator and move it away for exhaling and back towards the face for inhaling. If needed, signal slow/calm down by moving the flat hand (horizontal) up and down.
Of course, breathing dry compressed air of a limited supply adds to the pressure to get the breathing under control. But what works underwater works also on land, where you can talk or count out loud, instead of moving your hand.
In Open Water diving courses or any sort of try dives, you’ll often hear „breath deeply in and out“ or „breath normally“. But what is normal? In fact, we all breathe differently and our normal might not be the desired relaxed state the instructor is talking about. Deeply and slowly might even feel awkward and unnatural – in the beginning.
Don’t worry. Most things feel awkward the first time. The more we practise the better we get and all of a sudden we can’t even remember what was the problem in the first place. There will be a separate post on breathing in diving later this year. In preparation, we look at ways to breathe.
Ways to breath
A good way to start is to actually get to know the different ways to breathe – on land. Lay down or sit comfortably with one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Just breathe in and out. Where do you feel a movement?
There are two major ways to breathe: Using the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs, or the muscles between the ribs. By breathing only into the chest we are not using our full lung capacity.
Subconsciously we might have trained ourselves to breathe only with the chest, especially females, as flat bellies are considered to be more attractive. You can breathe with the diaphragm without moving the belly, but for full abdominal breathing, also known as belly breathing, the belly expands (partially) with the inhalation and contracts with the exhalation.
Experience the different areas of your lungs
There are plenty of instructions and explanations regarding breathing exercises online. This part is based on the German book “Yoga jeden Tag” (Yoga every day) by Anna Elisabeth Röcker. I chose this approach simply because it’s the one I started to experience my breathing with. The idea is to experience the different areas of our lungs and prepare ourselves for real breathing exercises.
Sit upright and let your breath flow into your belly. Keep a slight tension in the abdominal muscles so the belly isn’t rounding itself too much. If you find that too complicated, just go for a full-on buddha belly with every breath you take. Activate your pelvic floor (mula bandha) and hold your breath for a moment. On the exhalation either relax your abdominal muscles or pull your belly slightly inwards. Repeat a couple of times in your own rhythm.
To emphasize the feeling: Lay down on your back and place your hands, possibly even a big book, on your belly. With a deep exhalation, the belly sinks down. Wait a moment and then inhale and lift the belly with hands/book.
Place your hands on the rib cage and concentrate on the movement in the middle of your breathing space. With inhaling feel how the sternum is lifting up and out while the rib cage widens to both sides. After a short breath, you can use your hands to press down a little stimulating the exhalation. Repeat a couple of times in your own rhythm.
Lay or sit down comfortably and cross your arms in front of your chest. Place your fingertips just above your collarbone that’s where the tips of your lungs reach. On an inhalation try to keep your belly and chest as steady as possible in order to breathe in the upper chest, lifting the collarbone out and up. Make sure your spine is upright and repeat a couple of times in your own rhythm.
Combine the different areas for breathing
Once you’ll feel the difference between these areas, you can combine them. Breath into your belly first. Then let your rib cage widen while air is filling the middle space of your lungs. Finally, breathe into the upper chest, lifting up the collar bone. Exhale in the same order. If that isn’t feeling comfortable you can also start our exhalation from the top down.
It’s all in the rhythm
Conscious breathing is not only about which part of the lung we are using but also about how long we are inhaling and exhaling (plus holding our breath). The rhythm has an effect on our body and mind. We will come to specific patterns in a later post, but for starters: Long and deep inhalations are energizing/vitalizing, long and deep exhalations are calming/relaxing, together they are bringing you into the moment and then there are many combinations and patterns to work with.
Why breathing is your superpower
Abdominal breathing is a great tool to relax and focus on the present. The full force of the superpower develops over time though. (Abdominal) breathing especially as part of mindfulness training or meditation practice can have positive impacts on the overall well-being and immune system as well as specifically on the heartbeat and blood pressure. However, in the case of high blood pressure, one should consult a doctor before starting real breathing exercises. Other documented effects of regular practice are improved concentration, reduced anxiety, and lower stress levels (concentration of stress hormone cortisol in the body).
Give it a try, maybe add an affirmation to it to make it even more powerful, and see you soon with more breathing and visual meditation.