Breathing 101 - Featured Image

Most of us do not spend much time thinking about the 25,000 breaths we take daily. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Breathing should be automatic; it should take place below the level of conscious thought. Its automaticity keeps us above ground; it allows us to breathe without having to divert attention away from day-to-day activities. Its automaticity becomes a negative if you develop suboptimal breathing strategies; then you are simply automatically breathing with subpar form. (Obviously breathing suboptimally is better than not breathing at all but breathing optimally should be our ultimate goal.)  

Humans have the capacity to think about their breathing, to bring their breathe into conscious awareness. You can tweak a suboptimal strategy by being mindful. According to James Nester, author of Breath. The New Science of a Lost Art, the quality of our breath impacts everything from our athletic performance to our quality of sleep. Making even slight adjustments to the way we breath can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, allergies, asthma, and some autoimmune disease; and even straighten spines. With awareness brings choice; once you know how you are breathing you can adjust your technique. Once you know the rhythms of breath that best suit distinct aspects of life you can modulate your breathing style to fit your activity. 

Breathing 101 

The inhale brings oxygen into the body, fuels movement, and feeds our brains; inhaling amps us up. When in danger, we breathe faster. Think “fight or flight” mobilization mode. The exhale engages our parasympathetic system; it calms us down. Think “rest and digest” campfire mode.  

Too many of us are “chest breathers”; we take shallow, often slightly manic inhales. Many of the experts Nestor consulted believe that this frequent, almost manic, inhale stems from our constant state of stress. In our anxiety and distraction, with bad posture and laptops propped on kitchen tables, we gasp for air as if we were drowning. This pattern of “gasping” — of chest breathing — can lead to chronically tight chest and neck muscles, a flared rib cage, and a generalized sense of anxiety.  

Ideally, your breathing style matches your goal of that moment. For example, since inhaling charges up our nervous system and exhaling calms us down, if you are doing the modern equivalent of running from a tiger speed, feel free to focus on the inhale. If you are trying to calm down anxiety or fall asleep, take longer exhales. The calmer you want to be, the longer your exhale should be.  

Workshop time: Let’s learn to breathe  

Start on your back, right hand on the side of your waist so that your fingers reach slightly under your lower back, and your left hand on your upper chest and neck. Breathe in. Feel the diaphragm descend. Your inhale should create pressure into your right hand and into your back. The left hand on your chest should not move. Exhale. The pressure on your right hand should lessen as your diaphragm ascends. Now practice this three-dimensional diaphragmatic breathing on all fours, standing, sitting, and/or walking. Inhale into your back ribs, obliques, and pelvis. Your chest should rise last, or not at all. Exhale with control as the pressure leaves your ribs, obliques, and pelvis.  

Use a TheraBand for extra tactile feedback. Sit on a hard chair. Hook a long TheraBand around your mid back, where a bra band would sit. Hold the ends of the band with your hands. As you inhale feel the band expand behind and your diaphragm descend downwards; feel weight in your pelvic floor and sit bones. As you exhale your ribs should become less connected to the band.  

Evaluate yourself  

Stand in front of the mirror. Breathe in and see what happens. Your torso should expand slightly. Your chest and neck should stay relaxed. If, as you breathe in, all the muscles pop out of your neck and your chest rises before your torso expands, you are probably chest breathing and/or breathing too aggressively. What happens as you exhale? Can you notice yourself exhaling? 

Concluding thoughts 

It is easy to understand intellectually that breathing form is important; it is another to breathe differently throughout your day. Knowing and doing are always two different things. To change your habitual automatic way of breathing you need to repeatedly breathe optimally. Repetition is the mother of all skill. You need to “put in the reps”. Set an alarm or set a colour cue to ensure you get your reps in. When the alarm goes off, do five purposeful breathes. When you see your chosen colour do five purposeful breathes. Intentional practice makes better.  


Kathleen Trotter, MSc, is a fitness expert, life and nutrition coach, media personality, motivational speaker, trainer, writer, and author of Finding Your Fit and Your Fittest Future Self. Kathleen’s mission is to inspire people to adopt a healthier lifestyle (in an intelligent way). Connect via or FitbyKathleenT on all social channels.