Why breathing properly is so important

Endurance athlete Lisa Tamati explains why the simplest of activities can make the biggest difference to our health and happiness.

Proper breathing technique is crucial for optimal health and yet most of us aren’t getting it right – and by right I mean using diaphragmatic breathing (also known as horizontal breathing).
Awareness of the importance of the breath is shared by many ancient warrior traditions, from Shaolin monks and yoga practitioners to special forces soldiers.
They all use variations of these techniques to improve health, bring focus to the mind, control their physical responses and improve performance when under pressure.
Why aren't we breathing properly?
1.We sit more than is healthy and normal for the human body. Often slouched over computers or desks, our lungs are squashed and it’s hard to push out our stomach or to fill the lower lobes of our lungs.
2. We’re often told as young children to suck in our tummies, and this continues into adulthood as we want to look slimmer and have a flat stomach. But this leads to upper chest breathing and discourages us from using our diaphragms and stomachs, so we don’t look fat. This leads us to hold a lot of tension in.
3. We often don’t do enough physical exercise, especially cardio, which encourages us to focus on our breathing.
4. We can be under constant stress and tension with work and busy lives. We tend to breathe shallow and fast, and this exacerbates the problem and poor habits become ingrained.
An example of a bad breathing technique is hyperventilation:
Hyperventilation happens when you are taking rapid breaths, and this can lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, the blood pH levels rising, a decrease in blood flow to the brain and reduced calcium and potassium levels in the blood.
These can all have serious effects, ranging from spasms and seizures to fainting, numbness, tingling, hallucinating, increased heart rate and an inability to control our emotions.
All of this shows just how powerful your breathing patterns are.
What are the benefits of daily breath-focused practice?
1. It relieves anxiety, stress and tension in the body.
2. It helps our psychological state, and with regulating our emotions. It can help stop panic attacks, freezing or choking under pressure and lowers our stress arousal levels.
3. It assists in bringing our heart rate into a range that’s conducive to optimal cognitive and physical performance.
4. It helps detoxify the body.
5. It helps to optimally oxygenate the body and all its organs to allow us to heal better and live longer.
6. It leads to greater inner peace, focus and mind and thought control.
7. It boosts athletes’ performance as it helps them to control their physiological and psychological reactions to stress.
8. It strengthens the important diaphragm muscle, which tends to weaken as we get older.
9. Breathing into the stomach or using the diaphragm activates the calming receptors situated there and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
10. Using the diaphragm muscle helps massage and move the inner organs and aids digestion and detoxification.
11. It helps you control your anger and fear so you can react appropriately.
12. It lowers the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream.
13. Diaphragmatic breathing stops the overuse of the upper chest and intercostal muscles – this occurs when we just breathe into the upper third of our lungs, leading to tight and shortened muscles in the neck, shoulders and chest. It can therefore help us have better posture.
14. It helps us deal with pain and breathe through it.
15. It strengthens your lungs.
16. Oxygenating your body in an optimal way allows you to also flex your muscles more intensely. In sport, this can offer performance benefits.
So what is good breathing technique?
To understand whether you’re breathing using your diaphragm, lie on your back and place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Now take a deep breath in through your nostrils to the count of four. Is your stomach rising or your chest rising? Ideally your stomach should be pushing outward first, and if you take a very deep breath, the chest should rise. If you breathe deeply in your upper chest, your shoulders will move.
What we want to focus on is that the stomach pushes out first. When you exhale, you should be pushing the breath out and visualise sucking the tummy button into your backbone.
The exhale is just as important as the inhale. Only when you exhale properly and fully can you breathe out toxins, like carbon dioxide, and allow fresh oxygen to flood back in. Using the lower lobes of your lungs is very important. Emptying them fully and refilling them makes for optimum oxygenation.
When you’re doing your breathing exercises, you should either sit or stand very tall with your chest fully opened, engaging your core muscles. You shouldn’t be slumped over.
The inhale should be done, when possible, through your nostrils (sometimes you can’t if you have sinus problems, have had a broken nose or are exercising hard where you just need to get the oxygen in as fast as possible by any means).
Breathing through the nostrils slows the air coming in and helps with relaxation. It also helps you have more conscious control over your breath. The hairs in the nose also help filter out unwanted or harmful substances before they hit your lungs. Last but not least, breathing through the nose warms the air, important if you are in cold climates or have asthma or restricted breathing. When you exhale breathe out through your mouth.

Breathing exercises

Words: Lisa Tamati