Breathing is a BIG topic that scientists, researchers, physicians, therapists, athletes, meditators, and, well, anyone interested in the functioning of the amazing human body have been paying attention to and looking for ways to improve for millennia. A lot is known about the importance of how we breathe – recent studies show that different breathing patterns can activate our brain networks related to mood, attention, and body awareness (1) and that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing (2), so changing how we breathe can change how we feel and perform.
Various approaches and methods such as yoga, meditation, qigong, and martial arts, as well as techniques such as Buteyko breathing, NeuroMovement®, and those taught by Carl Stough and Wim Hof, all provide exercises and processes meant to enhance and improve our breathing so that we feel better, think clearer, are stronger and healthier, and elevate our functioning and sense of self in the world.
In this article, we share five aspects of the NeuroMovement® approach to understanding and improving breathing that are not commonly addressed, yet can contribute significantly to better and freer breathing.
1. There is no one “right” or “correct” way to breathe. (Phew, you can exhale and relax!)
Put very simply, breathing is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is accomplished by air flowing into and out of the lungs. The lungs themselves do not have muscles, so from the point of view of the lungs, both the entry of the air into the lungs and the exit of the air out of the lungs is done through movement that changes the relative volume of the chest cavity. When the volume expands, air will be sucked in. When the volume decreases, air will be pushed out. What increases and decreases that volume is the movement of the diaphragm coupled with the movement of the bones and muscles of the chest, belly, back, and neck. The way any position or movement is performed will determine how well one can breathe at that moment. If the movement of the ribcage, spine, sternum, and, of course, the diaphragm is limited, that will limit the quality of breathing.
2. Breathing can be greatly improved without necessarily practicing breathing in and out directly. Given that inhalation and exhalation is dependent on the movement of the chest, back, and diaphragm, focusing on creating greater freedom of many different movements in the rib cage, spine, clavicles, shoulder blades, sternum and also the neck, spontaneously will improve breathing, and facilitate the diaphragm to do its job better. With this increased freedom of movement, many additional improvements are often experienced, such as reduced pain, better sleep, clearer thinking, and increased well-being.
3. The brain controls breathing, and for improved breathing, the changes need to occur in the brain. As discussed in #2, movement is an integral and necessary part of breathing. To get free and well-organized movement that allows for the freedom to breathe well, we need to communicate with the brain and wake it up to form new connections and map the areas that need to move more fully as we breathe.
NeuroMovement® defines 9 Essentials that, when incorporated into the way you move, either during exercise or while performing your daily activities, will spontaneously begin to create new connections and possibilities in the brain, through a process called neuroplasticity, brain change, or simply, learning. This process is accessible and available to anyone, no matter their age or condition. (For more on the 9 Essentials, see our free 17-page eBook here.)
4. Breathing is an automatic brain function, not a voluntary, intentional function. Yes, we can, for a period of time, intentionally direct and control our breathing to some extent. However, whenever we get into action, or during sleep, breathing reverts to its automatic nature. Enhancing the mobility of our whole body combined with breathing exercises can make a huge difference in the quality of our automatic breathing by giving the brain access to greater freedom and variability in organizing our breath.
5. One way to take advantage of the brain’s automatic control of breathing is shifting the focus to exhalation rather than inhalation as a powerful way to improve breathing. Often when we are tense or stressed we are told to take in a couple of deep breaths. This can be helpful. However, a potent way to regulate our breath and increase the amount of oxygen that we take in, is shifting our attention to our exhalation. On each exhalation we exhale very slowly as long as we can do so comfortably. Then we let the inhalation take care of itself, i.e. allow the air to come in spontaneously. Dr. Carl Stough based his method on this principle, ancient techniques have taught it for millenia, and it is one of the breathing variations we focus on in NeuroMovement®.
How do we define healthy breathing?
There is no one way but rather a multitude of ways to breathe. The way we breathe should change and adapt to what we do at any given moment. Running fast to catch a bus requires a very different way of breathing compared to lying on a sofa watching TV. Therefore, healthy breathing cannot be defined by any specific way or style of breathing.
Instead, when we breathe well, our breath changes spontaneously to meet the flow of the ongoing demands and challenges. With healthy breathing we are available to respond to the “here and now,” to what is, at any given moment.
Healthy breathing also means freeing ourselves from the idea that there’s a “right way to breathe.” Instead, as we increase the repertoire and freedom of movement in the areas of our body that participate in breathing, and experiment with many different ways to breathe, we spontaneously breathe better and greatly enhance our vitality and well-being.
SOURCES: Herrero, J. L., Khuvis, S., Yeagle, E., Cerf, M., and Mehta, A. D. (2018). Breathing above the brain stem: volitional control and attentional modulation in humans. Journal of Neurophysiology, 119:1, 145-159. Jerath, R. and Beveridge, C. (2020). Respiratory Rhythm, Autonomic Modulation, and the Spectrum of Emotions: The Future of Emotion Recognition and Modulation. Front. Psychol., 11:1980.