Some notes on breathing

Breathing exercises are one of the latest trends in the fitness industry. The value of diaphragmatic breathing is discussed in multiple fitness systems, each with a slightly different outlook on how breathing exercises should be performed and why they are important. While the fitness industry is just beginning to realize the importance of breath, breath control is something that has been touted in Eastern movement systems for centuries. In the ancient yogic text The Yoga Sutras, for example, the knowledge of breath and the control of breath are keys to gaining mastery in yoga practice (Desikachar, 1995). Desikachar outlines some of the different types of breath control available, including exhale retentions, in his text, “The Heart of Yoga.” Other disciplines, including martial arts, teach breathing exercises as a way to enhance the practice. In the last century, many of the pioneers of the mind-body movement, including Mabel Todd, Joseph Pilates, and Juliu Horvath all included breathing as part of their teaching to enhance the mind-body connection and engage the abdominals. The point is that this breathing thing isn’t new; however, it is picking up steam. Understanding how it works and how it can be applied in a training setting can be extremely beneficial to a client’s overall well-being.

One of the main reasons to care about breathing is, like everything else, the diaphragm is a muscle that can be trained, and variability (at least according to Mark Latash), is the key to quality movement. From a physiological perspective, understanding that inhalation stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system can be a guide for how to implement breathing drills and which drills to use (Chaitow, Bradley, & Gilbert, (2002)). For instance,  if you have a client that is  anxious, irritable, or has a hard time focusing, implementing breathing exercises that utilize long exhales at the beginning and end of a session will more than likely leave the person feeling calmer and more focused, giving him a better workout and improved sense of well-being. 

When you inhale, your lungs fill with air. The diaphragm contracts, flattening out to allow the lungs to increase in volume (Calais-Germain, 2005). The shape the diaphragm takes depends on forces happening above or below it, and every time the diaphragm moves, it influences the organs by changing their shape. The diaphragm unites the thorax and abdominal cavity, and is believed to play a key part in spinal stabilization, along with transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, and internal and external obliques (Chaitow, 2002). Similarly to when anything else is discussed in regard to human movement, things work together rather than in isolation. If the diaphragm is unable to provide space for the lungs to fill, other muscles will work to provide space by lifting ribs from the scapular girdle and arm, lifting ribs from the thoracic spine, and lifting the ribs from the head and neck. Breathing is important- our physiological system will figure out a way to do it one way or the other. When the only strategy for inhaling involves one of these other methods, as a trainer, we will notice things like shoulders staying elevated, necks being involved when they shouldn’t, and breath being held to provide stability during times of perceived stress. The other anatomical point worth mentioning is the ribs are designed for movement. In a person that is utilizing diaphragmatic breathing, the inhale would increase the diameter of the ribs and the exhale would decrease the diameter. If someone lacks mobility in the thoracic rib cage, it’s like any other joint- we can expect some sort of compensatory reaction somewhere else to maintain a sense of “neutrality” in the musculoskeletal system. In people with hyper inflated rib cages, to maximize efficient movement, the exhale would be used to decrease the diameter and the inhale would be used to regain mobility laterally and posteriorly, much like the breathing techniques that the Postural Restoration Institute use. 

Breathing is complex. Desikachar (1995) and Rinpoche & Zangmo (2013) point out separately that everyone breathes differently. How a person breathes is influenced by a number of factors, including psychological state, history of breathing disorders, and postural considerations. Bringing awareness to breath and utilizing breathing techniques as a warm-up and/or in the cool-down phase of exercise can have long lasting benefits in movement efficiency and overall feelings of well-being. I utilize breathing techniques with all of my clients, usually in the warm-up, to help them tune in and be present, and as they are finishing, to send them away with a sense of calm. Many of my clients use the breathing techniques I teach them outside of their workouts with me, usually as a way to handle stress or as a way to stretch their midbacks. For a long time, the world of personal training seemed to view itself separately from mind-body disciplines, priding itself on a place where people got really strong and looked a certain way. As the general goals of people seeking personal training services change, the personal training field must change, opening itself up to ideas and methodologies that may have originally been viewed as fringe or not relevant in previous decades. People go to personal trainers to feel better about themselves; part of that is having a better connection with their bodies and finding a way to move with more ease. If you are looking for a trainer, interview several and make sure you find one that cares about your overall sense of well-being. If you are a trainer, explore different modalities and be open to trying new things, even if at first they feel a little awkward or outside of your comfort zone. Helping clients move better and feel better can have a profound impact on their lives.

Yours in health and wellness,

Desikachar, T.K.V., (1995). The Heart of Yoga. Inner Traditions International: Rochester.
Chaitow, L., Bradley, D., & Gilbert, C., (2002). Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders. Churchill Livingston: United Kingdom.
Calais-Germain, B., (2005). Anatomy of Breathing. Eastland Press: Seattle.
Rinpoche, A., & Zangmo, A.C., (2013). The Tibetan Yoga of Breath. Shambala: Boston.

P.S.- For a short demonstration on how the diaphragm moves, check you this Youtube video:  There are some longer videos that explain the anatomy really well if you decide you want to spend a bit of time exploring the complexities of breathing.