Part one of our new Breathwork Basics Series
Written by PJ Nestler
The average human takes between 14,400 and 20,000 breaths a day. But be honest – when was the last time you truly focused on even a handful of them? Sure, there are disciplines like yoga, meditation, and martial arts that require us to be cognizant of our breathing patterns. But outside of these, our hectic, non-stop (heck, you could even say breathless) culture crowds out the opportunity to pay attention to very much at all, let alone our breath.
And yet it’s the most elemental thing we do. As our co-founder Laird Hamilton often says, you could go for a couple of weeks without food and several days without water, but you’d die in mere minutes if you didn’t breathe. Even the best watermen like Laird (and, to an even greater extent, free-divers), can only hold their breath for six or seven minutes without gasping for air. The rest of us would only last a fraction of this time.
This is not to say that extreme breath-hold times are some kind of badge of courage, or are even necessary unless you’re a big wave surfer who’s about to be barreled by giant waves at Peahi or become a Navy SEAL. And even for such folks, maxing out isn’t part of their daily routine. Instead, we need to go back to basics, reconnect with our default breathing patterns, and see how these are helping or hindering us.
Ideally, we’d all be taking slow, controlled breaths initiated by the diaphragm at all times. This kidney-bean shaped structure sits underneath the base of your ribcage and acts like a bellows for a fireplace, at least if we allow it to do its job. Few people outside the realm of human performance know that the diaphragm’s role also extends beyond breathing. Due to its various attachments to spinal structures and the ribcage, it also has an important role to play in creating and maintaining an organized and upright posture when sitting, standing, and moving.
It’s also worth noting that when we start to stress breathe from our upper chest (typically through the mouth), we start to fatigue secondary respiratory muscles which, as Alex Hutchinson explains masterfully in his book Endure, tells the brain that we’re more tired than we actually are. To protect us from harm, the central governor (see the work of South African Tim Noakes for more on this) starts to slowly shut off the power, eventually stopping our exertion completely.
If you’re an athlete, this can be disastrous. And even those of us who aren’t pros suffer the physical and cognitive effects of taking the diaphragm out of the equation and instead defaulting to an apical breathing pattern that emphasizes breathing in and out through the mouth and reassigning the diaphragm’s duties to the muscles of the upper chest and neck. One you’ve probably noticed is chronic soreness in your upper back, shoulders, and neck (massage, anyone?). Even if you’ve got a caring partner who will rub away all that tension, keep taking thousands of these stress breaths each day and you’ll always hold excess tension in these touchy areas.
Deactivating the diaphragm can also profoundly impact your posture. When we’re belly breathing, we naturally engage this structure, which helps us keep upright and maintain a neutral spine no matter what activity you’re partaking in. But when we start chest breathing instead, the diaphragm eventually goes into sleep mode, taking its stabilizing power out of the equation. Add in the hours many of us spend sitting each day and the poor ergonomics of our office, car, and plane seats and home furniture, and it’s no wonder that a posture perfect storm is keeping back pain at epidemic levels in the West. Mouth breathing from the upper chest also affects us at a neural level. The clamor and chaos of our modern world – not to mention excessive technology use and too little exercise – is already putting us on high alert.
When we add in sub-optimal mouth breathing, we’re unconsciously signaling our autonomic nervous system to keep its see-saw tipped down on the sympathetic side (think anxiety, chronic stress, panic attacks, etc.). People who rarely engage the parasympathetic side typically start to suffer from a wide array of side-effects, including poor sleep, mood swings, loss of energy, and lack of focus. From a self-monitoring perspective, when we hook such people up to heart rate variability (HRV) monitors, they often have bad scores (whereas slow nasal breathing at approximately 5 breaths per minute improves HRV scores).
Wow, that’s a lot of bad news, huh?! But luckily, help and hope are at hand. We can begin to undo our self-destructive breathing habits and replace them with constructive ones that benefit our fitness, health, and wellbeing, while also boosting performance and optimizing recovery by regulating autonomic nervous system balance. Another benefit of nose breathing is that it warms, humidifies, and filters the air you breathe, none of which mouth breathing does.
Here are a few ways to start taking nasal breaths from your diaphragm:
To begin with, you need to understand what diaphragm breathing looks like, and then understand what it feels like. To do so, simply:
2) Abdominal Expansion
3) What Diaphragm Breathing Feels Like
4) Stand (and Breathe) Like Superman
5) Nasal Breathing to Downshift at Night + During the Day
Check back soon to read part two of the Breathwork Basics series