Breathing is as crucial for living as the gravitation is for keeping us “grounded” on the Earth. That is the first thing we do when we come into this world and the very last effort we make when we are leaving.
It is something that no one thought us yet we have the “know-how” from the moment we are born. One can legitimately get an impression it is the most intuitive, self-sustaining auto-piloted body function that we all naturally master. But it seems we kind of lost the skill somewhere along the way.
As newborns we breathe instinctually. This deep, relaxed, full breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing, where, while inhaling, abdomen expands but chest does not rise and while exhaling the chest maintain still while the belly muscles gently contract.
What is a diaphragmatic breathing and why is it important?
The diaphragm is a thin skeletal muscle that separates the lungs from the stomach or abdomen from the chest. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts downwardly to make space for the lungs to fill up with air. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of lungs. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
According to Dr. Louis Libby, pre-industrial hard physical work required people to use their full lung capacity, engaging the diaphragm while breathing. Nowadays, with our sedentary office lifestyles, things are different.
We rarely “breathe into” our entire body. Most often breathing “occurs” shallowly in the upper chest and that why the smaller amount of oxygen is being distributed to the lungs. We do that by using the intercostal muscles (lifting the shoulders and collarbone) rather than via diaphragm which expands the lunge capacity. Also most of us “breathe into” the front body. Have you ever tried to inhale into your back or into your side ribs? Unless you are a singer or an avid yoga practitioner probably you didn’t.
How to breathe the air?
Let’s play with some analogy. Imagine you have to fill up the glass of water to the top. The first part to be filled up is the bottom of the glass (lower abdomen), then the middle part of the glass (higher abdomen), and finally the top of the glass (chest). In the same manner, compare exhaling to drinking this glass of water. First you drink the water in the top of a glass (chest), second you are sipping the middle part (the higher abdomen), and last goes the water in the bottom (lower abdomen). Cheers!
Everyday stress, emotional and physical tension, fast-paced life or past trauma often stand in the way for people to access their full breath.
The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing
Scientiﬁc literature reports remarkable positive effects of relaxed, conscious, mindful breathing. These effects can be seen in improved motor abilities, lower heart rate and blood pressure, better cardiorespiratory function, balanced cortisol levels (the best buddy of stress and anxiety), positive impact on digestion, fatigue…the list goes on.
When we begin a yoga practice, one of the first lessons is the awareness of the breath. We are learning to listen to its pace (is it fast or slow), we observe its quality (is it shallow or deep) we begin to feel if it is “stuck” somewhere in the body (does it fluctuate effortlessly).
According to some yoga masters, Pranayama , set of yogic breathing techniques, is even more important than physical practice or asanas. But before starting with any practice, it is important to get familiar and comfy with its integral parts. In this case the quantum mechanics of breathing. Inhales and exhales. On and off the yoga mat.