- Thich Nhat Hanh
Like the beating of your heart, your respiratory system doesn’t need monitoring to continue on — every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day.
Whether you think about breathing or not, it happens.
This, in turn, leads many people to believe that they simply don’t have to think about their breathing. In this article, however, we’ll be countering this notion: Even though it’s not compulsory to give your breath much thought, when you do, amazing things can happen.
Conscious breathing (or breathing mindfully) can transform your life. It can change the way you think and process emotions, how your muscles work, how often you get ill, your chances of developing chronic diseases, and even how smooth and shiny your hair looks.
Surprised? Most people are. But as soon as they adopt some of the methods we’ll be outlining in this article, they become converts almost immediately.
So, let’s get started. We’ll begin by explaining why how you breathe is so important and how exactly breathing works. From there, we’ll talk about the benefits of breathing and explain how to improve your own breathing habits with some useful tips and exercises. Finally, we’ll go over some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about better breathing.
It may be a natural body function, but many of us take for granted the power that breath has over our entire body. Let’s learn how breathing works and why improving your breathing is essential for health, wellness, and longevity.
From the nervous and cardiovascular systems, right down to your body’s individual cells, deep breathing has the ability to transform and renew your health.
Below, we’ll examine the science of breathing, in order to highlight how stimulation of these systems can bring you closer to achieving overall better health, stress reduction, and longevity.
When you engage your breath, you are activating your nervous and cardiovascular systems. With each inhale and exhale, your breath helps regulate, recover, and restore your body. The science behind deep breathing is a great reminder of how our bodies have a natural ability to be resilient.
The main muscle responsible for breathing is the diaphragm. This is a dome-shaped muscle, which partitions the abdomen (below) from the thorax (above).
When you inhale normally, the diaphragm (assisted by the intercostal muscles) contracts and flattens. This pushes on the abdomen and simultaneously causes the lower ribs to go up and out. Essentially, the ribcage rises and expands. As a result, volume increases in the abdomen and chest, and the lungs are inflated.
During exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its resting dome-shaped position. The lungs, in turn, deflate, and air is expelled through the mouth and nose.
Carving out a few minutes each day for deep breathing can help you reduce stress, feel calmer, and have more energy — all good things when it comes to living a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.
But improved diaphragmatic breathing has additional benefits as well — some of which might surprise you. From improved hair growth to better posture, breathing affects the whole body from the inside, out.
Let’s take a look at the top benefits of deep breathing.
Deep, slow, and mindful breathing breaks the cycle of gasping breaths and airway constriction, which are often associated with respiratory illnesses such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). When taking in shallow and slow breaths through the nose, as many people commonly do throughout the day, you gradually lengthen the time between your breaths, which exacerbates this problem.
With regular practice, the technique of deep breathing has the ability to reduce wheezing and promote calm, regulated breathing. In fact, deep breathing exercises are regularly recommended by leading health professionals, doctors, and researchers who work with respiratory illness sufferers.
Once you start breathing deeply, you’ll notice tension release and an overall calming effect. You might even feel your heartbeat regulating and see your pulse lowering if you wear a health tracker.
This calming effect also triggers a relaxation response, and in turn, this allows you to fall asleep faster when it’s time for bed. During your sleep, you’ll notice that you wake up less frequently. Improved oxygen in the blood also enhances the metabolism, giving you the boost of energy you’re looking for before you start your day or a workout.
All of this is behind the reason why the National Sleep Foundation recommends deep breathing relaxation exercises to help people fall asleep when they’re restless.
It’s no secret that our daily environment doesn’t facilitate the maintenance of good posture. From all-day sitting at desk jobs and while driving, to hours spent in front of the TV or computer at night, the less our bodies are able to fight the forces of gravity and maintain a strong, stable core, the worse off our posture becomes.
According to Judith Marcin, MD, “Over time, [a sedentary lifestyle] weakens the strength of our respiratory muscles. It also creates tension in the upper body that can alter our posture and undermine our health.” Furthermore, when you breathe from the chest instead of the lower abdomen, it’s the muscles in your neck and shoulders that end up doing most of the work.
It should go without saying that these muscles were not meant for this kind of work, and over time, the shoulders will round, and the head will drift forward, which strains the neck and weakens the back muscles. Shoulder and neck pain is often common when this occurs.
But there’s good news. The action of deep breathing almost automatically corrects rounded shoulders, opens the chest muscles, and allows the rib cage to expand.
The mind-body connection remains an enigma to many medical experts. Still, even scientists agree that there’s something special about the link between the mind and emotions and how you breathe.
Notably, when we are stressed, the airways in the body become tighter, making it harder for air to travel from the mouth to the lungs. Essentially, your body has to work harder to transfer air, and you end up breathing faster, which perpetuates the problem.
This is, of course, why they always tell people to “take a deep breath” during times of stress or when someone is nervous before a big presentation or performance. It’s not without reason. Achieving mind-body calming starts with the breath. Slow and relaxed breathing allows for more oxygen to reach your cells, and it calms the nervous system.
Similarly, mindfulness practices like mindful yoga and mediation can help reinforce this mind-body awareness. Those who regularly practice mindful deep breathing, such as yogic breathing, report this practice as alleviating “anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress, and stress-related medical illnesses.”
Yogic breathing is not as intimidating as you may think. It is a more advanced technique that focuses on breathing awareness and retention. Whether you’re looking to balance out your nostril breathing, find a deeper mind-body connection, or feel a sense of cleansing and renewal, this practice will help you make each breath count.
A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that breathing exercises can enhance humans’ ability to retain newly learned information. In this study, two groups of healthy humans were taught to trace a unique path in a fixed timeframe. After they learned the path, one of the groups rested for 30 minutes while the other group engaged in a breathing practice for the same duration.
After this, both groups were tested on their abilities to recall the unique trace path that they had been taught 30 minutes prior. The results showed that, "The breathing-practice group retained the motor skill strikingly better than controls, both immediately after the breathing session and also at 24hours.”
Whether you partake in active sports such as soccer, basketball, or volleyball or you’re looking to increase your physical stamina strictly for athletic performance reasons, deep breathing exercises (and in particular, yogic breathing) can have a huge range of benefits.
This was recently proven to be true in a study testing the effects of yogic breathing practices on the lung functions of young swimmers. The study was published in the Journal of Aryuveda and Integrative Medicine.
Two groups of young swimmers were designated. One group was chosen randomly and taught to train in yogic breathing practices while the other group was the control. In the end, “there was a significant improvement in the YBP group as compared to control group in maximal voluntary ventilation … forced vital capacity … and number of strokes per breath.”
In addition to improving endurance and overall athletic performance, diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to improve balance. A recent study published in the Journal of Physical and Manipulative Psychological Therapeutics tested 13 healthy individuals from the University of Western states.
Over an eight-week period, the subjects were taught a series of breathing exercises. These exercises were performed on a regular basis at home and in-clinic, and at the same time balance was assessed by the researchers using the Modified Balanced Air Scoring System and the OptoGait's March in Place protocol.
In the end, the “study indicated that promotion of a costal-diaphragmatic breathing pattern may be associated with improvement in balance.” This conclusion stemmed from the fact that as their associated breathing scores improved, the subjects showed a decreasing error rate in single leg stance balancing exercises. In other words, they were able to stand and balance on one leg more easily and for longer as their deep breathing scores improved.
Did you know that it has even been shown that deep breathing exercises can help promote hair growth? When practicing deep breathing, your body delivers more oxygen to the hair follicle and stimulates more blood flow, which, in turn, helps hair grow faster and stronger.
The truth is, most of us don't breathe correctly. This may have been a learned habit that we acquired because we were taught to “suck in our gut,” or it may simply be a matter of getting older. Research has shown that children tend to deep breathe deeper and slower than adults, but when exactly this change occurs is not completely known.
Regardless of where you're starting out, you can learn to breathe better. Here are some techniques and tips that we recommend exploring in your journey toward healthier diaphragmatic breathing. Before diving in, however, let’s go over what poor breathing looks like.
Poor breathing is short, shallow, and high up in the chest. Optimal breathing includes longer, deeper breathes and occurs low in the abdomen.
To test your breathing, try this:
Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. Take a deep breath as you count to three. When you do this, which hand do you feel moving the most?
If it's your right hand (the one on your chest), you’re breathing from your chest. If it's your left hand (the one on your stomach), you are breathing from your abdomen. You want to do the latter— breathe from your abdomen.
When you breathe from your chest, your breaths are automatically going to be short and shallow because they're only scooping up the air from the tops of your lungs. The bottoms of your lungs are bigger and fuller. That's where your lungs store most of their air, and it's where you want to gather your breath each time you inhale.
Deep breathing is rooted in the diaphragm, your body’s miracle muscle that helps push air into the lungs. 3 Part Breathing is a simple deep breathing technique you can begin with as you practice your breathing.
It’s an easy way to become aware of the breath in your body.
During the process, your shoulders should not rise or fall. Everything is happening in the abdomen and thorax.
For those a bit more adventurous, “kapalabhati breath” is a technique that emphasizes exhales. Here’s how to do it:
Kapalabhati breath works by inducing “controlled stress.” Doing this via breath techniques forces your body to work up resiliency in managing the stress of daily life. It’s also a great way to rebalance the body’s CO2 levels.
On average, most adults have a regular breathing rate of 12 to 18 beats per minute. But if you can learn to breathe more slowly, this can be especially advantageous for cultivating better breathing habits. A recent article on the physiological effects of slow breathing in the journal Breathe, notes that, “ ‘autonomically optimised respiration’ … would appear to be in the band of 6–10 breaths per [minute].”
As you practice deep breathing, learn to cultivate “The Three R’s.”
Feel the beat. Inhale slowly for 3 counts, and exhale slowly for 3 counts.
Breathing techniques like this one, allow you to sync your breathing with the rhythm of your heartbeat and stimulate the vagus nerve. This stimulation regulates heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes your muscles.
From mind to body, this state has the ability to relax the brain for increased feelings of peace and tranquility.
Find your resiliency. Take 6 to 10 controlled, slow breaths per minute.
This exercise stimulates your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. When your breath is controlled, slow, and regulated, you maximize the heart rate variability (HRV), allowing you to recover from stress faster — a key to maintaining health and wellness longevity.
Breathe to heal.
The act of deep breathing sends oxygen to your blood cells. This is your body’s way of promoting rejuvenation and repair. Incorporate deep breathing practices into your routine, especially in moments of stress or fatigue. You may not feel the direct effects of your breath on a cellular level, but the restorative effects are will be happening.
This may sound a bit odd, but your breath can indeed have a texture to it. “Ujjayi” or victorious breath is a breath control technique that increases the breath’s pressure and promotes relaxation of the body and mind. Here’s how to do it:
Alternate nostril breathing or “nadi shodhana” is a nostril cleansing technique that balances out the energy, reduces your systolic blood pressure, and brings vigilant attention to the breath without activating your stress response (“fight or flight”).
* Consult a physician before these exercises if you have asthma or COPD. At any time if you become lightheaded, stop the exercises and resume normal breathing.
It is generally better to breathe through your nose. During deep breathing practice, it is often the protocol to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. According to the American lung Association, the nostrils of your nose "filter, warm, and humidify air in a way that the mouth cannot.”
Of course, sometimes, you’ll need to breathe through your mouth (for example, when you have nasal congestion or are exercising), but when you can, breathing through your nose is preferable.
Not really. All of these terms refer to the same type of breathing practice wherein breathes are taken deeply, slowly, and low — from the diaphragm.
You should start to see beneficial results from deep breathing and taking your first breath. Of course, it's important to remember that these benefits are going to be life changing right away. It takes time to cultivate a strong deep breathing practice that can be with you as a tool wherever you go.
The good news is, the benefits will only increase with time. Not only will you expand your lungs capacity for air and develop a wrote habit of turning to your breath in times of stress and anxiety, but the overall physical and emotional effects that you can't necessarily see will be working all the while in the background.
Some people may feel awkward if they practice deep breathing in front of other people. Well you certainly shouldn't feel self-conscious about the way you breathe, if you two prefer to practice your deep breathing alone or with a coach or in a class, this is perfectly fine.
On the other hand, if you are in a social situation and have become aware that you're getting anxious or agitated, taking a deep breath or two at this point can be especially useful. For this reason, you may want to excuse yourself to the restroom to do some deep breathing in private.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule here.
If you can, we recommend partaking in a meditation practice, which is the perfect time to work on your breathing. Even if you don't meditate regularly, however, taking a few moments out of your day to do some deep breathing will be beneficial. Actually, simply noticing your breath is the first step toward building a better breathing habit
You can set aside time to do some deep breathing every day, or do it while you're partaking in another relatively idle activity — for example, while you’re chopping vegetables, taking a bath, or waiting in line at the bank drive-through.
In high-stress and fast-paced environments, it can be hard to focus on the quality of your breathing. Still, this is when noticing your breath will actually be most useful. Again, even if you can just notice the quality of your breath during these stressful periods (are you holding your breath? Are your breaths more shallow or shorter than usual?), you begin to become more aware of how changing everything will be beneficial.
Yes, of course!
No matter where your starting point is, improving your breathing will improve your life. Certainly, if you struggle with asthma, COPD, or other lung related medical conditions, it's imperative that you consult your physician before starting a new reading practice.
At the same time, these conditions shouldn't hold you back from working toward better breathing habits. Absolutely everyone can benefit from becoming more mindful of and in tune with their breathing.
By now, you’ve seen the breadth of how important breathing is to repairing, maintaining, and rejuvenating the mind and body.
While better breathing takes mindful practice to ensure each inhale and exhale is slow, deep, and properly executed, it’s also beneficial to remember that this practice is free.
You don’t need a pill. No membership is required. Breathing is free.
It’s also something you can work on any time — and it’s all “grist for the mill,” meaning even taking one breath mindfully while you wait in traffic or stand in line at the post office can be beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing. Gaining a strong mastery of your breath may not happen overnight, but with time, we guarantee you’ll notice the benefits.
So, why not try it today? Right now, even? Here we go … close your eyes, center your mind, and focus. Now breathe.