Breathing 101


“Learn how to exhale” has always been my #1 tip as a breathing instructor.

In the practice of deep breathing, your inhalation can only be as good as your exhalation.

Extending exhalations for as long as you comfortably can and learning what muscles are involved is a great way to build awareness.

A purposeful exhalation requires a gentle pressure. Our abdominal muscles come into play, first automatically and then through our deliberate efforts. Practicing emptying the lungs in this way, without strain or struggle, is a good way to build strength in our breathing apparatus, slow down the pace of our normal breathing, and build lung capacity.

When we exhale, our diaphragm muscle relaxes but our abdominal muscles are working in order to expel the stale air from our lungs. Most of the time we are unaware of the role the abdominal muscles play in our breathing, but with practice we become engaged in this activity. In deep breathing exercises it is good to consciously work with our abdominal muscles in order to comfortably squeeze out as much air as possible from our lungs.

Learn how to release the abdominal muscles in a wave-like motion and the inhale will take care of itself.

Our respiratory system works by way of a vacuum effect. By releasing all the effort that was required for exhalation, the air automatically comes flowing back into your body; however, this releasing motion requires practice.

Trying to take in deep, full breaths without letting go is counterproductive and creates tension. Full, yet relaxed inhalations require good letting-go skills. I know none of us normally think of letting go as a skill, but it really is something that we can participate in and become skillful at doing. Think of it this way: Relaxing after a long day is something we gradually work toward through an unwinding process. It doesn’t just happen when we sit down and stop. It is the same with the letting go motion of inhalation.

The fact that it happens in only a few seconds actually makes it a bit more challenging, and this is why it takes practice. A good inhalation is not a tanking up of air but a gradual motion of release that results in a satisfying fullness. By learning how to exhale well you become better at breathing deeply.

Working with your breath this way can help you free your body of tension. Many of us are unaware of the tensions that are with us 24/7. Our breathing is designed to help us release any tensions that have become so much a part of us that we no longer sense their presence.

A long, slow even, relaxed and steady exhalation and a wave like release is deep breathing at its finest.

Breathing Tips: Sitting at Your Desk

Did you know that the way you sit has a lot to do with the way you breathe? Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time teaching my students about the relationship between their posture and their breathing. Our posture and our breathing affect each other, and both affect our central nervous system. Staying mindful of how we situate our bones on our chairs can help us to breathe more freely and reduce stress in our day. Our bones and muscles are wired to our central nervous system; they communicate to our brain the state of our being. Proper alignment of our bones and the proper relaxation of our muscles also have an effect on our breathing. When bones are stuck in poor positions due to muscles that are chronically contracted, they can jeopardize the flow of our breathing and cause an overstimulation of the central nervous system. The work of Progressive Muscular Relaxationby Dr. Edmund Jacobson of Harvard University explored how our muscles communicate with our nervous system and how we can and should learn how to actively relax. If we are relaxed in our posture we can keep ourselves breathing deeply and our nervous systems running smoothly.

The pelvis is the foundation for posture, and when it comes to breathing we want to breathe right down to that base. I try to help my students find the “neutral” pelvis. When we are at our desks, the comfort of the lower back, proper spinal alignment and quality of breath are all determined by how we are sitting. A relaxed pelvis can ensure that your diaphragm, the muscle that pumps your breath in and out, is able to have its full range of motion. Yourdiaphragm is attached through a network of muscles to your hips and lower back, and so tension in those muscles can prevent the diaphragm from moving freely. By finding a balanced position for your pelvis you can ensure that your hips and lower back are relaxed and that your diaphragm is free to move. Tilting your pelvis forward will arch your lower back, and tilting it backward will round your lower back. Fortunately, a relaxing position between those two possibilities does exist. It is one that will make it easier for your body to breathe deeply. Finding this balance could take a bit of time, so check a mirror, because people who habitually arch when seated will feel rounded when they relax their lower backs. If after you check a mirror your back is in fact rounded, you may have to prop up by sitting on a book. Next, completely relax your gluteus muscles. This is important, because many people are unaware of how the subtle gripping of these muscles tightens and shortens the breath. If you don’t believe me, try purposely gripping your buttocks while attempting a deep breath.

Once the pelvis is neutral, the back muscles and hip bones should feel free from tension; pay attention to how your inhalations are now able to move your lower belly and gently stretch your lower back.

When the pelvis is in a neutral position there is an element of balance. If you find that you can easily tilt your pelvis forward or backward, you have found the proper alignment. Developing mindfulness of our posture helps us to connect with our bodies and can make us aware of subtle tension. When we use only the muscles necessary to maintain our posture our breathing can become more relaxed and more efficient. When our muscles and bones are in balance, so is our breathing.