In my former life I was a singer and a singing teacher. I taught singing in one of the London drama schools and regularly taught people who had never sung before, having come to the college to study acting. I constantly found that these people did not know how to breathe. I then had a complete change of career direction and came into the fitness profession; I still find that, in general, people do not know how to breathe. Apparently there are about 500 different breathing systems in the world, a fact I find mind boggling. That said, for everyday usage, it is important that the breathing is not reversed. So what is reverse breathing, how do we know we are breathing properly and what are the benefits?
To check how we are breathing:
- Place one hand on the upper chest and the other hand on the abdomen.
- Take a big, gentle breath in and the abdomen should swell a bit. It is possible that the chest lifts a bit, but this is not a huge lift.
- Now take a long slow out breath and the abdomen should pull in a bit and possibly the chest slightly drop.
That is basically how breathing should go. It is common that as the breath goes in, the abdomen also goes in; as the breath goes out, the belly also goes out. This is called reverse breathing. Reverse breathing is what happens to our breathing when we are very stressed. At some point in our life, we learnt this stress pattern of breathing and never got out of the habit. If we breath as if we are stressed, then the brain thinks we are stressed and keeps releasing stress hormones, particularly cortisol. High levels of cortisol are associated with weight gain and illness. Also if we reverse breathe, this is very inefficient, so we get out of breath quickly when we exercise, so cannot work as hard or go as fast. Also if the brain thinks we are stressed, our muscles will be tight. If we think about the best athletes in the world, or the best musicians or dancers, come to that, their movement has an effortless quality to it. This is something to emulate, and sorting out the breathing is a good start point.
So how to sort out the breathing?
- Drop down into child’s pose as seen to the right. The arms can be beside the body or overhead, whichever is most comfortable. Stay here for a few minutes. After a while you will start to feel your back moving as you breath in and out – expanding as you breath in and then contracting as you breath out. Relax and let it happen.
- When this is felt, now easily come up to all fours, on the hands and knees, keeping the sensation of breathing into the back. Keep the breath small and relaxed; after all we are not doing anything, so be careful not to over breathe.
- After a short time, place the hands on the thighs, so the body is now tilted to a 45° angle. Continue to breath easily into the back.
- Come up to kneeling, still breathing into the back.
- Finally come to standing and keep that slight sensation in the back.
- Place the hands on the low abdomen and breath out with a very gentle hiss. The low abdomen should gently contract and the breath feel as if it is flowing up and out in a fine line. Keep breathing out until you have to breathe in. The breath drops into the body, the abs swell slightly, the bottom of the ribs open out. Then gently hiss out again. Generally when people hiss, they hiss too hard and the feeling is one of compression with tightness in the throat.
So there you go. When the supreme sports people move, it looks effortless. To equate exercise with excruciating effort is rather a misunderstanding. Would Usain Bolt run so fast if his face was contorted and jaw gripped? And one of the planks in Novak Djokovic’s success is having lessons with a singing teacher. So start to sort out the breathing and life will become less stressed. Incidentally, sorting out breathing is vital for asthmatics. All it requires is patience and concentration.