We measure the age of our lives from the moment we take our first breath of air (though we’ve been existing, listening, hiccuping, dreaming and even practicing breathing in the womb for 9 months) to the moment we take our last. But we seldom measure the quality of all the breaths in between those two.
At first there’s not normally anything wrong with the way we do it – babies are naturals, breathing with maximum efficiency and no obstructions. But as we grow up we accumulate bad habits. Anxiety, stress and other pressures warp our breathing, as do injuries and extra weight. The flow of air is obstructed, and our lungs become stale and cramped.
Take a deep breath now. Did you just open your mouth? Why? The mouth is not designed for breathing: it has lips, teeth and tongue, but since when do you need to kiss, bite, or swallow your air? In contrast the nose has filters to clean out dust and pathogens, it warms and humidifies the air (which helps oxygen uptake) and the sinuses release a gas called nitric oxide, an amazing molecule created also by lightning(!) that has a whole cascade of benefits to the brain, immune and cardiovascular systems (and may even increase sexual function in men!).
Take another deep breath (this time through your nose I hope!). Which part of your torso moved first? If it was your shoulders, raising up, then you are breathing backwards, filling the lungs from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.
The diaphragm is the muscle responsible for filling the most voluminous portion of the lungs at their base, and if you use one muscle to breathe, then it should be this one. It works like a plunger at the base of our chest cavity, and is the most efficient breathing muscle. Using it activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system, whereas if you’re using the intercostal muscles to expand and raise the ribcage (chest breathing) then you’re engaging the sympathetic nervous system, associated with fight or flight.
We should use this kind of nasal and diaphragmatic breathing in 95% of our waking life, and 100% of our sleeping life.
The rhythm of the breath isn’t as important (and chances are it will self-regulate when it’s using the right pathways and muscles), but having a relaxed rhythm with small pauses between the exhales and inhales is ideal. It doesn’t have to be deep either (though occasional ‘physiological sighs’ do have their place). Passive diaphragmatic ventilation actually only uses about 10-20% of lung capacity, and that’s enough unless we’re exerting ourselves physically.
Beware of hyperventilation, and practices that promote it! Hyperventilation includes any repetitive deep breathing, or other method that over time reduces CO2 (causing respiratory alkalosis). The idea that it cleans the lungs has no basis in medical understanding. In fact hyperventilation causes a narrowing of the small airways (bronchoconstriction), which is why asthmatics must breathe into a bag during an attack to recycle CO2 and open their airways back up. We actually need some of that waste gas in our body (mostly dissolved in our body’s water) in order to ensure blood flow to the brain, access to haeme oxygen (Bohr effect) and for so many other reasons. Passive, nasal, diaphragmatic breathing ensures the right balance.
Breathing correctly might sound like a superpower, and it is! The effect is transformative and permanent, and doesn’t lead to any other dependencies like prescription drugs may do.
In the Mental Immune System I demonstrate how to improve your breathing, and avoid all the common pitfalls that can hinder it (e.g. an inability to breathe through the nose due to constant congestion). But as amazing as these changes can be, they are only half of the System. Stress and anxiety get to us not just physically, but also mentally, and so we need to defend there as well, using the intrinsic power of our own minds.
Ultimately the whole System must be programmed into the subconscious mind, so that it is locked in as an immutable response to any and all of the pressures that life is fond of throwing at us.
Allowing us to get on with the business of living the perfect life.