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Breathing Tips

With Dr Sven Hansen

Breathing Tips

Breathing, so natural and so obvious! Most of us get it wrong. Contributions to poor breathing include the pace of life, anxiety (stress), prolonged sitting (particularly if slumped) asthma, and lung disease.  The basic function of breathing is to extract oxygen (O2) from the air for metabolism and to remove the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by metabolism. Many of us develop accelerated and shallow breathing in our pressured lives. This is commonly called hyperventilation and is a factor in fatigue, distress, dizziness, poor sleeping, irritability and poor health. Breathing can be corrected with enormous benefits to our daily lives and performance.

Breathing Mechanisms
Fortunately, we do not have to think about our breathing. It is driven from the brainstem and continues if unconscious. We can take voluntary control of it. We breathe air into our chests, extracting O2 for life and deposited CO2 as waste. Ideally, the diaphragm ventilates the lungs.  Inhalation causes an outward swelling of the lower ribs and belly. Normal adult breathing is 12 to 16 breaths per minute.
In distress, we activate secondary muscles in the neck and upper chest. This causes rapid, shallow breathing. This is OK if we are yelling at a tiger but becomes a problem if maintained. This upper chest breathing - or hyperventilation - causes us to blow off too much CO2. Blood pH increases blocking the release of O2 to brain and body. This causes a range of disturbing symptoms as listed. Breathing rate will be 16 to 20 per minute and you can still feel short of breath.

Optimal breathing is diaphragmatic, slow and even. On inhalation the diaphragm contracts and presses down on the abdominal contents filling the lower parts of the lung. As the diaphragm relaxes it domes upward pressing air out. The outward breath slows the heart and activates the Vagus nerve causing relaxation. Diaphragmatic breathing is efficient, effective and a quick way to relax and calm the mind.  Optimal diaphragmatic breathing can be 3 to 6 breaths per minute. This is a goal of yoga practice.

Do you have a Breathing problem?
While severe hyperventilation can cause serious symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, numbness and muscle pain, mild cases are common and can be a major cause of perceived "stress", fatigue and poor concentration. The following clues are useful:

- Breathing with the upper chest
- Holding the belly stiff and tight
- Visible use of neck muscles
- Neck pain, shoulder stiffness & headaches
- Sharp inhalations and deep exhaling signs
- Breath - holding which causes an audible "pah" on exhale
- Nagging desire to suck air in

Establishing normal breathing
Working at effective diaphragmatic breathing will benefit all of us. In the case of hyperventilation, simple improvements can have an enormous benefit to your health, sense of wellbeing and performance.  Below is a practical guide:

1. Start lying flat on a firm surface
2. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest
3. Simply watch the rise and fall of your hands
4. Gently nudge your inhale to 3 seconds and your exhale to 5 seconds
5. Relax and soften your chest so that it is inactive
6. Allow your belly and lower ribs to expand slowly on inhale
7. Relax, soften your muscles and lengthen the exhale

As you become competent, practice the same routine while sitting. It is very important to sit upright with your spine light and long. Each time you feel a tug of stress or frustration simply exhale fully and do 5 slow even breaths wherever you are.

Hyperventilation can be serious. If you are concerned about your breathing you must seek professional help. Wheezing, persistent cough, dizziness, unrelenting fatigue and muscle pain in neck, chest and back may indicate that you need help. Equally, be patient and careful before engaging in challenging yogic breathing as it can become disturbing. Use a good instructor.

For more information:
The Resilience Institute:
Breathing Works: 

(Broadcast 17 July 2012)