Optimising your Breathing

Getting Started

The previous three articles (back to breathing, breath like your ancestors, eight benefits of optimising your breathing) have made the case that most people breathe more than necessary and could benefit from reducing their breathing to a more appropriate level.  This article provides some first steps in this process.

You will obtain better results by buying and reading one of the books written on the topic, or better yet getting personalised coaching, but many people will want to try out the idea before they make a commitment. And many others will want to get started before their book arrives or before they find an instructor. So here are some ways to get started.

Breathing has the unusual distinction of being both a voluntary and involuntary activity. Thus it is possible to reduce your breathing for as long as you maintain attention.

Unfortunately, when you stop paying attention, your breathing will return to its current ‘default setting’.

However if reduced breathing is maintained for more than about twenty minutes it will begin to make changes to your breathing centre – to recalibrate it towards normal healthy breathing rate. This article will look at some of the ways to do this. The same types of processes can also be used to quickly raise CO2 levels for various short term effects which will be discussed in the next article.

The first step towards reducing baseline breathing is to recognise the factors that contribute to increased breathing in the first place, and try to stop them from happening:

  • Breathe through your nose. Mouth breathing makes it almost inevitable that you will over breathe, due to the lack of resistance to air entering your lungs. It is possible to over breathe through your nose, but due to the smaller airway you will hear and feel your breathing if it is excessive.

 

If you suffer from nose blockages there will be tips in the next article for dealing with this on a short term basis. Generally once your breathing is reduced to a healthy level, nose blockages will be drastically reduced.

This can present something of a vicious cycle.  You need to breathe through your nose, so that you can reduce your breathing, so that you can unblock your nose so that you can breathe through your nose…. For some people medication may be needed in the short term to break this cycle and make full time nose breathing possible.

Many people even tape their mouths shut at night or use this glue as a way of ensuring that they nose breath throughout the night. Personally I prefer the tape, but for anyone with a beard or very sensitive skin around the lips, the glue is a more realistic option.  The improvement in sleep quality can be remarkable.

  • Breathe diaphragmatically. Breathing with your chest muscles tends to increase your breathing rate both directly, and as a result of activating the sympathetic nervous system. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing in a variety of positions (eg the Original Strength breathing drills) helps to make diaphragmatic breathing automatic.
  • Manage stress. As discussed in part two being stressed or excited while physically passive is one of the causes of chronic over breathing. There are probably many stresses in your life that are unavoidable, but we all tend to have a certain amount of stress that can be cut from our lives, so it is worth looking at the stresses in your life in order to identify any that can be removed. It is also worth minimising activities that are exciting but sedentary. If you crave excitement try to get it in ways that are physically active. When you are being sedentary try to do things which are actually relaxing.
  • Avoid overheating. One of the ways that we cool our body is through increasing breathing. In cold weather try not to overdress. Many people wear an extra jumper ‘just in case’ because they hate being cold. If the idea of risking feeling cold bothers you, try carrying the extra jumper just in case, and only put it on if you actually start to feel cold. As your breathing reduces you will find that your cold tolerance increases, and you will require less warm clothing. There are two reasons for this.
    • Reduced breathing means that you will lose less heat through your breath and stay warmer.
    • Increased carbon dioxide levels will cause your blood vessels to dilate. This leads to better peripheral circulation which will prevent cold hands and feet.

 

Practicing reduced breathing

Within the OS system one of the basic resets is to simply spend time focusing on breathing through your nose, using your diaphragm. This is done in a variety of positions in order to make breathing diaphragmatically automatic regardless of what you are doing.

Seeing as you are already doing this (you are, aren’t you?) it is an obvious opportunity to practice reduced breathing at the same time. Your aim is to reduce your breathing to the point that you feel a mild ‘air hunger’ or desire to breath more, but you do not want the process to be stressful at all. If you attempt to restrict your breathing too much you will activate your stress response- which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

There are many different techniques to help focus on breathing less, but before discussing them I would like you to try simply breathing less. Lie down and spend a few minutes breathing nasally and diaphragmatically, and simply be mindful of trying to breathe as little as possible while still remaining comfortable.

       Ask yourself the question ‘how much do I actually need to breathe?’  

When you do this, look out for some signs that you are successfully raising your blood CO2 levels. You may find that any of the following happen:

  • You start to feel calmer and more clear headed
  • Saliva increases and becomes thinner
  • Your extremities become warmer due to increased circulation
  • Muscle tension is reduced
  • Your eyes start to water
  • Your airways become more open

 

Go on …. Try it for a few minutes, then come back and keep reading.

Some people will have a significant amount of success simply by following the instructions above, but it is more effective with some extra tips.  Here are some to try.

  • Focus on the feeling of the air through your nose – cool as it comes in and warm as it leaves. Use this as a form of feedback. The more you slow your breathing the less you will feel the movement of air through your nostrils.
  • Lying on your stomach (crocodile breathing) gives great feedback that you are breathing with your diaphragm. This is one of the reasons that it is a popular position for breathing practice within the Original Strength system. The resistance also provides excellent feedback about how much you are breathing, which makes it great for reduced breathing exercises.
  • Use the elastic recoil of your lungs to exhale. Many people do not realise that their diaphragm has a resting position. You fill your lungs by contracting your diaphragm and if you then relax it your lungs will deflate very slowly until your diaphragm is in its resting position. At this point your lungs will be empty-ish (similar to the end of a normal exhale). Exhaling passively using the elastic recoil of your lungs will slow down your breathing considerably. It is also super relaxing…which indirectly slows your breathing still further.
  • To take this method a step further you can leave your diaphragm relaxed at the end of an exhale. In some ways this could be thought of as holding your breath (you stop breathing) but in other ways it is the complete opposite. Instead of tension it is about relaxation – you are not so much holding your breath as releasing it. Wait in this position at the end of each breath until you feel like you actually need to breathe.

 

Resetting your breathing centre through exercise

Perhaps the simplest way to increase carbon dioxide levels (and hence reset the breathing centre) is through exercise while nose breathing. As the amount of breathing required is increased during activity, it becomes extremely unlikely that you will be able to breathe more than necessary while nose breathing.

Go for a walk, run or combination of both depending on your level of fitness and the state of your breathing. Simply go as fast as you can while maintaining nose breathing, and staying relatively comfortable. Even people who are used to running up large hills are likely to find that they need to walk up the hills when they first begin – the trick is to not let your ego get in the way. There is no need to think about your breathing –just focus on maintaining nose breathing, and continuing to move at the fastest pace that is comfortable.

The same principal can be applied to any physical activity. Simply let your pace be governed by how much you are able to do while nose breathing. In addition to the benefits to your breathing, this is also a great way to avoid overtraining by limiting your intensity.

Should you ever mouth breath while exercising?

Purely from a health perspective, probably not. From a fitness and performance perspective the answer is a little more complex.  For example:

    • Most people will find that they can perform better if they mouth breath during competition, and possibly during some of their most intense training sessions.
    • During strength training it is advisable to breathe out through pursed lips as a way of maintaining intra- abdominal pressure.  This is a way of producing more resistance than the nose would provide, and therefore limits breathing at least as effectively as pure nose breathing does.

Nose breathing however should be the default option, and mouth breathing the carefully considered exception.

Next time – Ways that reduced breathing can be used for immediate short term relief for various health issues.

(Spoiler – it works way better if you are also making long term changes to your default breathing pattern, as described above – so get started!!)

 

This article is intended as information only, and should not be viewed as medical advice. It is not written by a medical professional, and it takes no account of your own individual circumstances.

 

 

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