Overview of Free Your Breathing

  • Habituated stress and chronic tension tighten the muscles of the torso, particularly the abdomen, restricting full breathing.
  • Chest breathing alone does not supply sufficient oxygen for optimal metabolic functioning of your body.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is proven to reduce stress levels, lower the heart rate, and stabilize blood pressure; to boot, full breathing can improve your mood!
  • When you inhale deeply, the diaphragm contracts, pressing the abdominal cavity down – when you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back to resting beneath the ribcage.
  • By developing awareness through movement and pandiculating the diaphragm, you can improve your breathing, better supplying your body with oxygen.
  • Improving your breathing patterns will automatically improve your response to stress, and your awareness of your nervous system.

Improve your breathing through sensory awareness

Think about the last time you felt stressed or in a hurry; begin to embody that feeling and notice what happens to your breathing. When you feel stressed, and your chest and abdominal muscles tighten in the natural response to stress, the withdrawal reflex, you are not breathing fully.  Stress causes all of us to take shallow breaths into the chest, without engaging the diaphragm. When you breathe in this way consistently, your organs, including your brain are not receiving sufficient oxygen for optimal functioning.  

When you live in a constant state of stress, worry, or fear you cannot breathe fully.  Thomas Hanna, the founder of Clinical Somatic Education, estimated when you breathe into your chest alone you take in only 15-20% of the oxygen necessary for optimal metabolic functioning.

Why is breathing important?

Before we discuss the mechanism of breathing, we should first understand why oxygen is important for our health and overall functioning.

We all know without oxygen, we would die within a few minutes.  Oxygen is critical for our production of energy at the cellular level (think: ATP production and cellular respiration).  When we breathe in, we supply our organs with oxygen, but when we exhale, we also help our bodies by getting rid of waste: carbon dioxide.  

Breathing techniques and patterns have been regularly suggested to practice to improve organ function, control psycho physiological stress responses, and for relaxation.1  According to one study, deep breathing produced an effective improvement for participants in mood and stress and also objectively improved heart rates and lowered salivary cortisol levels.2  Cortisol is one of our stress hormones, but having too much cortisol for too long can cause negative health outcomes. 

We need a healthy amount of stress in our lives, to move forward and face our lives; cortisol can help motivate us and get our bodies ready to encounter a challenge.

Mindful belly breathing, not surprisingly, slows the heartbeat and stabilizes or lowers blood pressure.  When we feel anxious, our hearts tend to race, and maybe a fluttering occurs in the belly; slowing down and take a few conscious, deep, diaphragmatic breaths can dramatically shift your nervous system.  You go from the sympathetic response of fight, flight, or freeze to the parasympathetic response of rest and digest.

So now let’s explore the mechanism of respiration.

Mechanics of Respiration

When you inhale, air travels first through your nose and mouth.  The nose has many fine hairs that filter out any debris or dirt when you inhale, to protect your lungs.  The nasal cavity and the mouth meet in the pharynx; the oxygen travels from the pharynx, through the trachea, and finally into your lungs.  When oxygen reaches your lungs, blood absorbs it and transports it to your organs.

More specifically, your lungs have large tubes in them called bronchi; air flows through the trachea to the bronchi, causing them to expand or inflate.  From your bronchi, the air travels to tiny offshoots called bronchioles. The bronchioles get smaller and smaller as air moves into tiny sacs called alveoli.  At this point, oxygen is separated from the rest of the air and moved into tiny blood cells called capillaries. Carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen through the alveolus gas exchange.  

When the oxygen finally meets your red blood cells, hemoglobin carries it to the rest of your body, traveling first to the heart.   

At the bottom of the lungs is the diaphragm.  The diaphragm is a muscle that separates your thoracic cavity (ribcage) from your abdominal cavity (abdomen and corresponding organs).  The diaphragm is shaped like an umbrella, or a dome. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts downward, pressing the abdominal organs and viscera out of the way; this opens the chest cavity so the lungs can take in more air.  

When you are inhaling, the reason you feel like your belly is expanding, is due to the contraction of the powerful diaphragm muscle.  Of course the air is not actually traveling down into your belly; the diaphragm is pressing those organs and tissue downwards, causing your belly to rise up.  

When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and travels back up beneath the ribcage; your abdominal muscles relax and return to their normal places.  

If you have ever tried belly breathing, you have experienced diaphragmatic breathing.  This is best practiced lying down, in a different relationship with gravity, so your muscles can relax more.

How does Somatics improve breathing?

Well, first of all, Somatics is the best way to gain conscious, voluntary control of your muscles, including your diaphragm. Moshe Feldenkrais, one of Hanna’s teachers, discovered a powerful way for the brain to gain control of muscle groups through differentiation.  

Feldenkrais discovered that by the very simple process of paying attention your brain could gain better control of your muscles – yes I’m talking about skeletal, smooth, and even cardiac muscles.  He coined a technique used in Somatics called awareness through movement using very small movements.  When your brain isolates a certain muscle group or area of the body, the space in your brain developed to that area enlarges and becomes more sensitive and aware.  

Your brain literally forms new neural pathways when you begin to notice difficult-to-sense or “dumb” areas of your body (i.e. the torso).  As you get more brain “real estate” dedicated to certain areas of the body, through conscious movement, your control of those areas dramatically improves.

Therefore, by directing your attention to your chest and belly as you inhale, you can gain better control of the trunk of the body. You can even pandiculate the diaphragm – intentionally contracting it, slowly releasing the effort, and completely resting at the bottom.  In a sense, natural, belly breathing is the first pandiculation we ever learn as infants.

When you begin to explore movements of the back, the front, and the sides, you slowly unravel layers of chronic tension that inhibit full breathing.  Your habitually contracted muscles relax, as you gain cortical control of your body. Your breathing will naturally improve as a result.

Simply practicing the Arch and Flatten, the Backlift, and the Side Bend are excellent ways to improve breathing and gain control in the center of the body.  

Personally, my breathing shifts dramatically from the beginning of my daily Somatics practice to the end. As I free up muscles in the center of my body, I can feel the breath moving evenly in my entire body. It’s incredible!

If you don’t know what these movements are, come check out my Somatics series; I teach 6-week courses periodically at different movement studios in Reno. Otherwise, let’s have a Skype session!

Works Cited

  1. Ritz, T. and Roth, W.T. (2003). Behavioral intervention in asthma. Behavior Modification. 27 (5), 710-730
  2. Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P. et al. Neurol Sci (2017) 38: 451. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8