Breathing is one of our primary movement patterns and often is one of our most dysfunctional. We often don’t realise how important breathing is and the impact it can have on the body.
It seems to be such a natural, unconscious action that we surely can’t be doing it wrong?
Unfortunately, poor breathing patterns are one of the most common things I see in my classes.
Breathing is emphasised a lot in Pilates, it has often been considered one of the core principles.
Improved breathing pattern can help with many things including;
Decreased stress and anxiety
Improved pelvic floor function
Improved quality of sleep
Improved body function
I’m going to detail some breathing patterns below however, first I have to discuss the anatomy of breathing as this will help when you try on your own.
The primary muscle for breathing is your diaphragm. This is a dome-like muscle that sits below the lungs.
There are two ‘cavities’ or spaces that I’ll mention – the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity. This is basically your chest and your abdomen.
During inhalation the diaphragm contracts, moving down towards the abdominal cavity which creates space in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand into. The muscles between your ribs, the intercostal muscles, contract which moves the ribcage upwards and outward and causes the ribcage to expand. This increases the volume of the thoracic cavity and forces the lungs to stretch and expand.
There is stuff about pressure and gas exchange which you are welcome to read up on but is somewhat irrelevant to this post.
When you exhale the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax causing the lungs to recoil and the thoracic cavity and lungs decrease in volume.
Dysfunctional breathing patterns are characterised by the body using the accessory muscles of respiration (chest, neck, and shoulder) as the primary muscles rather than the diaphragm. This is super common. It means that you have to breathe more often, the breath is often quite shallow, you might have issues with pelvic floor, and it can cause more muscular dysfunctional in the accessory muscles.
Now, onto the breathing patterns!
This is also known as belly breathing or deep breathing. The aim is to get the diaphragm working as the main respiratory muscle. This helps to strengthen the diaphragm and help you re-learn how to use it.
01) Find a comfortable position, make sure shoulders and neck are relaxed
02) Breath in slowly through your nose, thinking about sending the breath down into the belly. Allow the abdomen to dome if it wants to
03) Breathe out slowly through the mouth. If the abdomen domed, let it gently relax back down
04) The chest remains still as you breathe in and out. You can place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest to feel how the breath falls
05) Aim for 5 minutes, 3-4 times a day. Once you get the handle of it try breathing in different positions e.g standing, sitting, laying etc
Diaphragm breathing has a lot of benefits including lowering stress and anxiety, it helps to lower heart rate and blood pressure, and it takes less energy to breath.
Lateral Thoracic Breathing
This is also known as lateral breathing and is the breathing pattern used in Pilates. The aim is to activate the diaphragm and intercostal muscles by sending the breath to the sides and backs of the ribcage and imagining the ribcage expanding.
The reason it is used in Pilates is because it allows for abdominal connection as well as encouraging full, deep breaths.
01) Find a comfortable position either sitting or standing
02) Place your hands on the front of your ribs with the longest fingers touching in the centre
03) Take a deep breath in and allow the ribcage to expand to the side which will cause the fingers to separate slightly. Imagine your ribcage is an accordion and it is going to expand out to the side on the inhale and come back in on the exhale.
This is quite a challenging breathing pattern. You may find it difficult to visualise or if you have been using accessory muscles they might try to kick in and stop you breathing like this.
Don’t worry if it takes a while to get into or if you don’t think your ribs are moving much. Practicing will help your body and brain adapt to the new pattern.
Pursued Lip Breathing
This is when you breath in through your nose with your mouth closed then breath out through your mouth with your lips pursed, as if you were drinking from a straw or about to whistle. When you exhale there is some air left in the lungs, this is known as air trapping or trapped air. In reaction the body will often increase breathing trying to rid the body of the excess carbon dioxide in the lungs, this can lead to more carbon dioxide being trapped, and fatigue the respiratory muscles.
Pursed breathing can help to reduce air trapping, improve oxygenation, help people gain control over their breathing whilst in distress such as having an anxiety attack, and is good for relaxation.
01) Find a comfortable position and relax the body
02) Breath in gently and slowly through the nose with the mouth relaxed and closed
03) Breath out through the mouth with pursed lips as if you were going to drink from a straw or start to whistle
04) 5 slow breaths 4 or 5 times a day
This can feel odd if you don’t often breathe through your mouth or you are not used to audible breathing. It is a great way to reduce feelings of stress or anxiety but you want to start with 5 breaths. If you are not used to breathing like this it can fatigue the respiratory muscles. So start small and build up!
This, like the name would suggest is where you double the length of the exhalation to the inhalation. If you a breathing in for 2 you would breath out for 4. This is a really good technique for relaxation and focusing the mind.
The fight-flight-freeze response is processed by the sympathetic nervous system.
Your sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-flight-freeze response. When in this state your heart rate increases, your breathing increases, and the body produces more stress hormones.
Your parasympathetic nervous system controls the rest, relax, and digest response. When activated your heart rate will lower, your blood pressure will lower, and your breathing slows.
Extending your exhales can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system which will help to relax the body.
01) Find a comfortable position and relax the body
02) Inhale slowly and gently through the nose for a count of 2
03) Exhale gently for a count of 4
04) If comfortable increase the length of inhalation and exhalation, keeping the out exhalation longer
05) Start small and build, perhaps aim to do 30 seconds then work up to a minute or two
This should be comfortable and easy; it shouldn’t strain the body or cause any feelings of anxiety. If it does, then stop or reduce the breath counts.
This will help the body to relax and decrease feelings of stress or anxiety.
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Gerritsen, R.J.S., and Band, G.P.H. (2018). ‘Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12: 397
Keeley, D., and Osman, L. (2001) ‘Dysfunctional Breathing And Asthma: It Is Important To Tell The Difference’. British Medical Journal, 322 (7294), pp 1075-1076
Nguyen, J., and Duong, H. (2020). Pursed-lip Breathing. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing
Visser, F.J, Ramlal, S., Dekhuijzen, P.N.R., and Heijdra, Y.F. (2011). ‘Pursed-Lips Breathing Improves Inspiratory Capacity in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease’. Respiration, 81, pp 372-378