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Breathing: So Simple Anyone Can Do It

Of all the physical functions that keep us alive, breathing is the most mysterious.  Unlike heart beat or digestion, we have a degree of conscious control over our breathing – rate, depth, direction, and timing.  But we do not have complete control.  It will start up again whether we like it or not.  Consequently, breathing is the link between our conscious and unconscious minds.  By manipulating our breath, we can increase our control over physical and emotional states, test physical abilities, and improve physical and mental performance.

“…only a few minutes per day can help you take greater control of your physical and emotional states, allowing you to intentionally control your performance, both in and out of the gym.”

Before we can do this, however, we should ensure our breathing mechanics allow us to access the full power of the breath.  Ideal breathing mechanics activate the parasympathetic nervous system because they tell us that all is well and we can remain calm.  This is primarily due to feedback from the diaphragm and sinuses.  For this reason alone, we should ensure we breathe through the nose and use the diaphragm as the first and primary breathing muscle.  The diaphragm moves down to initiate breathing followed, if necessary, by the lower ribs and intercostals, and finally – and only if necessary –  the upper chest if breathing heavily.

Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/take-a-deep-breath

Many of us have developed the habit of breathing primarily with the upper chest, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases our stress levels.  It also expends more energy to obtain less oxygen than breathing into the larger, lower lobes of the lungs and throws off our movement mechanics.  Breathing through the mouth has similar effects.

Related: The Mindfulness of Movement

To rediscover the diaphragm, or verify that you’re using it, lay down or sit in a style that allows a neutral spine and pelvis (the “stable midline” I’m always talking about in class).  Dig both hands under the ribcage on either side.  This should be weirdly uncomfortable, but don’t force it.  Breathe as normally as possible through your nose and observe what moves first.  If it is not the hands, imagine filling the bottoms of the lungs first until that happens.  This is diaphragmatic breathing, which is how we should breathe all the time.  Perform at least ten (10) breaths as normally as possible, and observe any tendencies or habits you may not have noticed before.

Once our connection to the diaphragm is established, we can seek to increase or decrease our level of excitement, altering the balance between our parasympathetic (relaxed, calm) and sympathetic (high alert) nervous systems.  The classic advice to “take a deep breath” when you need to calm down is a simple implementation of this idea.

Related: 7 Bedtime Routines to Help You Sleep Tight

To start exploring your ability to change your physiological and emotional state through breathing, start with the following exercises:

To wake up, improve focus, or similarly excite your systems, breathe through your nose and:

  1. Ask yourself how you feel.

  2. Inhale for a 5 count and exhale for a 5 count for 3-5 full breaths.

  3. Take 20 breaths in and out at the fastest rhythm you can control.

  4. Immediately start the same 3-5 cycles breathing in and out, but this time for a 6 count each.

  5. Take 20 breaths in and out at the fastest rhythm you can control.

  6. Repeat for a 7 count and 20 fast breaths.

  7. Finish with 2 breaths inhaling and exhaling as slowly as possible.

  8. Ask yourself how you feel.  Compare to before the start.

To slow down, prepare for bed, or otherwise calm down, breathe through the nose and:

  1. Do 5-10 cycles of 1:1 breathing (inhale for X amount of time, exhale for the same amount of time).  For example inhale for 4 seconds & exhale for 4 seconds.

  2. Do 5-10 cycles of 1:2:1 inhale-hold-exhale.  For example inhale for 4 seconds, hold your lungs full for 8 seconds then exhale for 4 seconds.  This should be relaxing, not stressful.  If you start to feel anxious, shorten the time interval you’re using (for example go to 3-6-3 instead of 4-8-4).

Try one or both of those protocols and notice what, if anything changes.  Do you feel more awake?  Alert? Sleepy? Anxious? Calm?  Breath work is highly individual, and requires practice and attention.  Still, only a few minutes per day can help you take greater control of your physical and emotional states, allowing you to intentionally control your performance, both in and out of the gym.

Contact me with questions, or to learn more!

John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer

john@crossfitslipstream.com