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Breathing Techniques: What Is a Natural Breath Pattern and How Can I Breathe More Efficiently?

Most of you will take 8 to 16 breaths by the time you finish reading the next few paragraphs. Breathing is something you do every minute without actively or consciously thinking about it, but it’s a fascinating process that is essential to life.

Merrithew Master Instructor Trainers Moira Merrithew and Kim Kraushar have been mindful movement practitioners for more than 20 years each. Recently, they’ve started to delve deeper into the research and science of breathing, informing the evolution of the STOTT PILATES® Breathing Principle.

“The more that I started to investigate breath, the more excited and encouraged I became. I recognized that the issues in my own body that I’ve struggled with most of my life were connected to non-optimal breathing habits and by making some simple but profound changes I could gain greater control over my physical and emotional vitality,” Kim says.

As an avid cyclist, Moira has recognized how a different approach to breathing allows her to gain greater focus and develop greater power on her rides. “Once I started experimenting with different breathing techniques, I realized that there was so much more to this natural phenomenon than we ever thought before.”

There are many different ways to breathe and each breathing technique is designed to elicit a specific response. As we learn more about the body and the physiology of breath, it’s important to understand what to look and feel for in the body.

In this article, Moira and Kim explore some of the different breathing techniques that exist and explain how to harness the breath to calm the nervous system or even boost performance, whether you’re practicing Pilates or competing in sport.

Once you’ve read the article, grab your Mini Stability Ball and follow Kim’s video above as she guides you through a breathing exercise from our ZEN•GA® Mindful Movement: Breathing Workout workshop.

A woman takes a mindful breath while enjoying the outdoors

What is a natural breath pattern?

While all of us breathe all day and all night, we don’t necessarily have the most effective breath pattern.

At one point in our lives, our bodies functioned with perfect synchronicity and efficiency. But over time, our individual physical, emotional and psychological experiences have affected our individual breath patterns.

There are a variety of factors that play into the specific way we breathe that include:

  • Posture
  • Pain
  • Overactivity of the abdominals
  • Pelvic and rib cage position
  • Pregnancy
  • Injuries and surgeries

We all have the capacity to breathe optimally, and with practice, we can master this important biological function that may affect our entire being. As one saying goes, ‘the mind controls the body, and the breath controls the mind.’

First, let’s take a look at what is involved in a healthy breath pattern.

Three key concepts of healthy breathing:

  1. Breathe in and out through the nose with your mouth closed, jaw relaxed, tongue resting on the roof of the mouth with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth
  2. Breathe slowly (approx. 10-12 breaths per minute) and rhythmically
  3. Breathe less - we tend to breathe at a higher volume than is actually necessary to serve our body. Breathing more than we metabolically need negatively affects the body just like eating more than we metabolically require stresses most of the body systems

According to Kim, this is how you want to be breathing all day and all night. She refers to it as ‘nutritious breathing, our blueprint for optimal metabolic function.’

For many people, the stress and strain of modern life has thrown off their breathing patterns. When you’re in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze, as many have been this past year, the heart rate and breathing rate become shallow, rapid and irregular.

“Compared to other body systems, breath is unique because it is an automatic, unconscious act that we can override and control at will. When you consciously alter your breathing, you can influence many other systems in the body, like heart rate, blood pressure, hormone production and more. The breath is the gateway to the autonomic nervous system,” Kim says.

“Initially, when you start thinking about the breath, you may start to feel a little panicked. That was a sign for me that my natural innate breathing was not calibrated properly. Initially you have to be conscious of your breath patterns. Breathing techniques that emphasize imagery can be very helpful. Picture your physical design: your diaphragm going down and up, your lungs filling and taking up space within your rib cage, then emptying and shrinking.

“A helpful first step to better breathing is to not necessarily try to control or manipulate your breathing. First just try to witness it. You learn a lot about yourself when you witness your body in a variety of situations, breathing by itself.”

This can be referred to as ‘Awareness Breathing.’ Awareness breathing is the quiet inward reflection of the act of breathing. It involves noticing what parts of the body are involved in breath and how that breath makes us feel.

Taking the time to observe the breath periodically will help you notice habits, such as if your breathing is shallow or if you’re holding your breath.

“There is a learning curve where you’re creating the opportunity to reset your breathing pattern. This is part of the process of being aware and recognizing your breathing so eventually you can learn how to control and harness it in certain situations,” Kim says.

A diagram showing how the diaphragm functions during breathing

The diagram above illustrates how the diaphragm moves as you breathe. When you inhale air, the diaphragm moves downward, increasing the space in the chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand, like a balloon, into this space. The muscles between the ribs also help enlarge the chest cavity. When you breathe out, the diaphragm and rib muscles relax, reducing the space and allowing the lungs to deflate, like releasing air from a balloon. (Source: nhlbi.nih.gov)

How is the diaphragm involved in breathing?

The diaphragm is the primary muscle of respiration, but regulating breath is not its only function. It’s fascial connections to the ribs and intercostal muscles, the spine and deep muscles of the torso, like the quadratus lumborum, psoas and pelvic floor, make it an integral component in movement creation and control.

“The use of ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ as a technique is not completely accurate, as the diaphragm is involved in all types of breath,” Moira says. “Understanding the physiology of what is happening when we breathe is crucial. Encouraging maximal expansion of the rib cage and a deeper excursion of the diaphragm is important to improving breathing efficiency in any activity.”

We also need to be aware of the movement direction of various areas of the rib cage. The images of a ‘pump handle,’ ‘bucket handle,’ and ‘caliper’ speak to the three-dimensional nature of breath and the optimal movement of the ribs.

A good breath pattern is necessary to decrease unwanted muscle tone in the accessory muscles of breathing, specifically those around the upper shoulders and neck. These muscles are conditioned to activate only when absolutely necessary, and when overused, can trigger a heightened sympathetic nervous system response.

How can we match breathing with function?

In order to use the breath effectively, it needs to match the requirements of the task.

“Whether we’re decreasing stress and downregulating the sympathetic nervous system, or preparing the body for a more strenuous activity, manipulating the breath pattern can help us achieve our goals,” Moira says.

In other words, we can align the breath with the work that needs to be done.

When determining what type of breathing is going to be most effective, individual responses are important and must be taken into consideration.

“It’s the same idea as muscle recruitment when working against resistance. It would be inefficient to use the same force to lift a 5 lb weight as a 100 lb weight,” Moira says.

When our breath patterns are more effective, we can better convert energy on a cellular level, and affect our C02 regulation. This, in turn, will make all of our systems work more efficiently.

Read more > Breathing Techniques: How to Adapt STOTT PILATES Breathing to Make Pilates Exercises More Effective.

For more mindful breathing exercises, check out our streaming platform Merrithew Connect. Join now and get 14 days free >

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