I think that there are two keys to breathing properly. 1) You want to breathe on long intervals, breathing in for 5-10 seconds and breathing out for 6-12 seconds at a time. 2) You want to breathe at a nearly constant rate during all breathing. It is funny at first to come to understand that there is an unhealthy way to breathe. Breathing with the chest, using the intercostal muscles, promotes fear and anxiety and unfortunately many of us do this habitually. This is known as shallow breathing or thoracic breathing and is strongly associated with anxiety disorders. This constitutes defensive breathing, which sends messages to the brain that the environment is adverse. Most people who breathe shallowly are unaware of the condition and do it throughout the day.
Breathing with the diaphragm is a natural way to ensure that you are taking in just the right amount of air to provide oxygen to your body. On the other hand, defensive, or thoracic breathing allows mammals to constantly adjust the breathing in order to respond to threats. In order to actively respond to a dangerous environment our ancestors had to modulate their breathing before every anticipated threat. In the short run, this would help prepare them for the increased oxygen requirements that they would need for “fight or flight” maneuvers. Sadly, most people live their lives in this mode despite the fact that we are no longer protecting our bodies from predators or club bearing maniacs. Today we constantly use the nervous system’s defensive breathing circuits, and the associated pulmonary musculature despite the fact it isn’t helping us survive. Instead, it actually drains our energy and turns us into nervous wrecks.
Diaphragmatic breathing uses the diaphragm, a skeletal muscle that extends across the bottom of the rib cage that expands and contracts to fill and empty the lungs. I believe that the diaphragm is programmed to take in just the right amount of air to oxygenate the body, given size and energy requirements of the body. It takes in the precise amount of oxygen needed in a tranquil environment but would fail to respond properly to a wild, hostile environment. The modern world has “tricked” our bodies into thinking that our environment is too stressful to breathe peacefully. It is our responsibility to reverse this.
A number of practices and institutions promote helpful deep-breathing exercises that last a few minutes. Unfortunately, these practices give no guidelines for how to permanently change breathing style. Moreover, the existing advice tells people to breathe deeply, but does not tell them how. They also recommend that people watch their belly rise and fall as they breathe in and out. It is true that during diaphragmatic breathing the belly should expand and deflate. However, if this is the only guideline, people start to simply use their abdominal muscles to mimic this movement without actually breathing diaphragmatically. I think that the key to activating the diaphragm is to breathe at a constant rate as detailed below. Meditation practitioners advocate “focusing on the breath,” without giving any other guidelines. I believe that focusing on the breath is helpful because it allows you to naturally notice when you are breathing very shallowly at a very inconsistent rate. However, we want to go further than this and reprogram our breathing so that we are always breathing deeply at a very consistent rate.
Accomplishing Deep Breathing
You want to breathe in and out on longer intervals. Start by spending 5 to 10 minutes at a time breathing in for 6 seconds and breathing out for 8. As long as you breathe out a little longer than you breathe in you activate the vagus nerve and the body’s relaxation response. You also want to breathe all the way in and all the way out. You will notice that you begin to panic, and your heart speeds up when breathing on longer intervals. This is a crucial part of getting better! You want to feel your heart speed up, and mentally reassure it “Hey, there is nothing wrong, I am just taking deeper breaths.” As you breathe on longer and longer intervals, your heart will try to warn you that what you are doing is dangerous. It assumes that you are ignoring the hostilities of your environment and your nervous system is afraid that you are overriding its own defense mechanisms. As you calmly and assuredly breathe through these little bursts of panic, you heal yourself. This exercise makes it so that the next time a mild stressor threatens to impinge on your breathing, you are able to breathe through it, without prematurely interrupting the inhalation of exhalation that you are taking. The best way to practice this is using a breathing metronome. These are easy to download for your phone as a mobile breathing app, such as “Breath2Relax.” I use the app every morning when I wake, every night before I go to bed and while driving. Regular use will reprogram your breathing, and with it your life.
Accomplishing A Constant Rate of Breathing
You want to breathe at nearly a constant rate throughout each breath. At some point, I realized that breathing on longer intervals wasn’t enough. I was breathing at 10-15 second intervals, but around 5 seconds, my rate of inhalation or exhalation would quickly decrease without me even noticing it. I started to realize that breathing through the nose, and hearing the breath constantly flow through the nasal cavity was relaxing but I didn’t know why. Buddhist and Hindu practices emphasize breathing through the back of the throat, and this accomplishes the same thing. Meditators concentrate on the “ha” or “so” sound. Creating an even sound throughout the breath actually ensures that the breath is being taken at an even rate. Just think, from a mechanistic perspective, there should be a single most effective, most energy efficient rate. In fact, if your rate changes it is probably a response to a negative thought. Don’t let it change. Imagine that each second you are taking in the exact same volume of air – throughout the breath. The best way to do this is to breathe through the nose (or through a constricted throat) so that you can hear each breath (even if very faintly). Focus on maintaining the same exact sound from the beginning of each inhalation/exhalation, all the way to the end.