People breathe differently. Children usually breathe with their abdomens, middle-aged people usually breathe with their stomachs, and older people usually breathe with their upper chests. The way people breathe is affected by emotions, pain, physical fitness, or illness. A 2003 study by the University of Arizona found that in a group of athletes that completed 20 30-minute breathing exercises, 9 of 10 of the athletes improved the performance of their breathing muscles by 12 percent and increased their endurance by 5 percent.
To breathe you must create a vacuum in your lungs. This is accomplished by three methods: expanding the rib cage (chest breathing), lowering the diaphragm (abdominal breathing), or a combination of the two. When babies are born, they breath using their diaphragms, the correct method. You can see their abdomen rising and falling as they breathe. At some point, people turn to the lazy method to breathe, using the rib cage. We learn that we should stand straight, suck in our stomach, and push out our chest. Instead of the abdomen rising and falling when we breathe, the chest rises and falls. Instead of being "belly breathers," we have become "chest breathers." Expanding the ribs is a quick and easy way to breathe but it is ineffective and inefficient.
You cannot completely fill the lungs though rib cage breathing and the intercostal muscles between the ribs tire quickly when heavy breathing is necessary, causing pain in the side of the ribcage. Shallow chest breathing strains the lungs, which must move faster to ensure adequate oxygen flow, and it stains the heart, which must speed up to to deliver more of the oxygen deficient blood to the body. Shallow breathing causes stress, which makes you breathe faster, which cause more stress, which makes you breathe faster, etc. On the other hand, the diaphragm was designed for breathing. It can completely fill the lungs and do it for as long as is required. To fill the lungs to capacity, you should fill them using the diaphragm and then "top them off" using the rib cage. This is called "deep breathing."
Deep breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve long standing patterns of poor digestion, decease anxiety, improve sleep and energy cycles, and allow people to wean off addictive anti-anxiety drugs.
To deep breathe, inhale deeply through the nose, mouth, or both (preferably the nose, so the air is filtered and warmed), dropping the diaphragm to fill the lower section of the lungs with air. Contract the abdominal muscles to create an antagonistic pressure called centripetal pressure. The lower abdomen should always be kept slightly tensed in a position of equilibrium between the centrifugal force of the breathing and centripetal force of the abdominal muscles. Near the end of the inhaling cycle, expand the chest to fill the upper section of the lungs. Inhale through nose and exhale through mouth. Keep tongue curled up so it touches roof of mouth. This keeps it away from teeth and lets saliva circulate so the mouth stays moist.
In normal breathing, the "topping off" is not used. You use just diaphragm and lower abdomen. This abdominal breathing pushes internal organs downward, which lowers the center of mass and increases stability. In chest breathing, the chest is inflated and the shoulders are lifted, which raises the center of mass and decreases stability.
It is possible to over breathe. When we are anxious or stressed, people advise us to "relax and take deep-breaths." However, deep breathing in a relaxed state causes dizziness and sometimes fainting. The cause of the O2 deficiency is not due to the lack of O2, but by the lack of CO2. Over breathing causes and O2 deficiency, so if we breathe too much, we have less O2 in our body. Without CO2, oxygen remains bound to hemoglobin, unreleased, and incapable of being used by tissues. As a result, there is an O2 deficiency in tissues, such as the brain, kidneys, and heart, as well as a significant increase in blood pressure. Ever notice how someone “holding his/her breath” becomes increasingly hyperactive. Over time, the level of CO2 increases dramatically causing the rapid consumption of O2. This hyperactivity may continue until unconsciousness.
Learn Deep Breathing
- Lie on your back and place a book on your belly. Relax your stomach muscles and inhale deeply into your abdomen so that the book rises. When you exhale the book should fall. You will still be bringing air into your upper chest, but now you are also bringing air down into the lower portion of your lungs and expanding your entire chest cavity.
- Sit up and place your right hand on your abdomen and your left hand on your chest. Breath deeply so that your right "abdominal" hand rises and falls with your breath, while your left "chest" hand stays relatively still. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and enjoy the sensation of abdominal breathing.
- Place a clock with a second hand in view. Breathe in slowly, filling your abdomen, for five seconds. Then breathe out slowly to the same count of five. Try exhaling through a straw in a glass of water. The bubbles you produce will provide feedback so you can control the slow exhale.
- When walking for exercise, walk and talk with a friend. It is difficult to walk and take shallow breaths.
Deep Breathing Exercise
To practice deep breathing use the following exercise. You may also use this exercise to recover normal breathing quickly when you become "winded." When breathing quickly and heavily during Taekwondo training, such as during free-sparring, deep breathing will allow you to resume a normal breathing rate quickly. Be careful when performing the exercise when not winded so you do not hyperventilate. If you feel dizzy, stop! Use this breathing exercise at your own risk.
- Stand in an attention stance. Breathe normally.
- Step the left foot about 12-inches to the left, relax the body, and, while deeply inhaling through the nose, raise both arms up, outward, and forward with the hands open as if you were putting your arms around a large beach ball. Inhale using the diaphragm until the lungs feel full of air; think about air filling your abdomen rather than your lungs.
- While holding the breath, pull the hands inward toward the upper chest, rotating the hands palm down as they approach the chest, ending with the palms facing down, one hand over the other just in front of the upper chest as if they were resting on top of a post.
- As you slowly force the breath out through pursed lips, slowly and deliberately push the hands down as if you were forcing the post deeper into the ground. Tense the abdomen and think about forcing oxygen into the bloodstream. By slowly releasing air, you will prevent you blood pressure from rising too high. When the hands reach belt level, tighten the abdomen and quickly and forcibly exhale all the remaining air in the lungs through an open mouth, while snapping the hands and body into a parallel ready stance.
- Repeat the cycle until you breathing rate returns to normal.
Hoopes, A. (2002). Breathing Training For Martial Artists. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 72); Generating Ki through Breathing. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 73); Stillness Training, The Basis of all Movement. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 72).
Sonnon, S. (2001). Oxygen Debt Does NOT Equal 'Cardio Training. Dvizheniye Journal July/August 2001. Available: www.amerross.com.