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Just Breathe, but how?


Breathe. Have you seen a lot of advice to stop and breathe, take a deep breath, breathe and count to ten, lately? Ever wonder how air actually comes in/out of your body. Yes it involves the diaphragm. And a belly breath or deep breath. But hoooooooww?

Through a pressure differential. When the atmospheric pressure (air around us) is higher than the pressure in the chest cavity, air moves from a higher pressure (atmosphere) to lower pressure (into your bod). When the pressure in your chest cavity is higher than atmospheric pressure, you release air into world around you. High to low, low to high on repeat for ~20,000 times per day.

The diaphragm contracts and depresses, increasing the volume in the chest cavity to decrease pressure. Air enters through nose/mouth. Then the diaphragm relaxes and rises back up towards the neck/throat, volume decreases, pressure increases inside the body. Air leaves through nose/mouth.

Click here for a video demo of the pressure differential

The white membrane (diaphragm) lowers or contracts to change the volume in the solo cup (chest) and creates negative pressure, filling the lungs (pink balloon) with air. When white membrane rises/relaxes to decrease the volume, it pushes air out of the balloon. A bunch of metabolic stuff happens in the blood and lungs in there.

The diaphragm presses down on the organs beneath it when it lowers. With spine in the back and the desire to keep organs from falling out through your pelvis, the easiest path for those guts is forward. And we get a belly breath or diaphragmatic breath. This type of breathing is great for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (digest and rest) and the vagus nerve (the one that innervates your guts). Also prohibits the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), the one that’s triggered every time you see new info/maps/videos.

A belly breath is great for singers, horn blowing musicians, theater folk, anyone looking to project his/her voice. It is not ideal for most mat Pilates exercises, planks, any abdominal exercise where you’re lying on your back with head lifted and/or legs and flailing about.

You can change the volume in your chest cavity in three different ways. The belly breath changes the volume vertically or head to tail. You can also breathe sideways and backwards.

Belly breath, Vertical volumetric change in the torso:

One hand on sternum, one hand on belly. Inhale to push your belly hand forward. Exhale draw that hand back towards your spine. If you’re a person who isn’t used to letting that belly hang/stick out, you’re in for an interesting experience. This will go against all the training to suck it in. It’s okay you don’t have to stay in that position forever. But if you’re looking to decrease some stress, add some calm, distraction to slow your breathing before sleep, let that belly hang. Try it in different positions, hands and knees is very interesting. Be sure to keep your back stable, while on hands and knees. This is not cat/cow, way more subtle than cat/cow.

Click here for a demo of a belly breath

Lateral Breath, volumetric change to the sides

You can also breathe sideways. Put your hands on the bottom of your ribs, just below the bra strap (if you’re wearing one). Press hands towards each other. You can press a little bit. Those ribs are designed to move and give a little. You’re about to find out. They are like bucket handles that can go up and out.

Now, direct your breath to go up and out into your hands with the inhale. Exhale and press your ribs back down. Don’t rush it, you’ll hyperventilate. It takes a little practice, but after a couple tries, it gets easier. The 12 y/o got some decent movement after two tries.

If you’re shoulders don’t allow you to place hands on ribs or you are unable to generate any force to press into ribs, you can use a neck tie, dog leash, stretching strap. Cross the strap in the front. Now pull with your hands to squish the ribs. Breathe into the strap as directed above.

Jamie, can I use a theraband for this? Yes you can, however. I prefer something solid to push into when learning the lateral breath. A theraband works pretty well, too.

Click for a demo of lateral breath

One Lung Breath, volumetric change to one side

Now that you have a handle on breathing sideways, you might notice one side moves differently than the other. You might not. Try looking in the mirror. Does one side move first or faster or easier? Does one side feel stiff? If you don’t notice a difference, do the right side first (for right-handed peeps, you weirdo lefties, do the left side). I’m cuing this for moving the right side first.

Hold the left side still with pressure from the strap or band. Breathe into the right side, allow the right ribs to move up and out. Keep the left side still. After a few right-sided breaths, try it with a side bend to open up the right side.

Switch sides. It will take your brain a few tries to switch side and you did the easier side first, so anticipate the left side/second side to require more brain power.

Why? Jamie, why should I care about this? Clearly, it’s cool. Also, if you have a slight scoliosis (most of us have some sort curve to our spine), you can keep it from getting worse or possibly even it out. Also helps increase a side bend stretch, standing on one leg, bird dog exercises, and side planks.

Click for a demo of one lung breath

Breathing into the back, volumetric change to the back of the ribs

This one may not translate virtually. This one is the most challenging one, not physically, but figuring it out. Takes a bit of a deep dive. Prove me wrong though, give it a try.

Instead of the entire rib cage moving up and out, just the back of the ribs move back and out. The easiest place to learn it is in your car, where you can squish your ribs into the car seat (don’t crash, the car should be at a stop). Inhale into the back (or car seat or on your back in bed) exhale to soften through the front/sternum. Think of the air swirling like a scroll or two tornadoes spinning inward towards each other.

Click here for a demo of breathing into the back

If you’ve done a deep cleansing breath to open up through the front, in yoga perhaps? Awesome!! We are usually all pretty good at that one when prompted. This is the exact opposite. The deep cleansing breath is a great way to open through the chest with all this sitting/texting/typing. However the purpose of that type of breath is different. Breathing into the back really kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system (digest and rest) and the vagus nerve. You (eventually) will create a sinking/relaxing feeling. Great to try right before you go to sleep. Add this to initiate a bridge, standing roll down, when you’re winded after running up the hill on Forum or Chapel Hill.

All three types of breathing: belly breath, lateral (two and one lung) breathing, breathing into the back, serve different purposes. There isn’t one best way to breathe. It depends on what action you’re doing and depends on your spine’s preferences.

You have to breathe all day anyway. You have about 20,000 chances to try these today.

“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.”

–Joseph Pilates


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