Since breathing is something we all do all the time and, for the most part, we do it unconsciously it is also something we generally give very little thought to. That is, until something goes wrong through illness or accident and we are quickly reminded that it is one of the cardinal processes of our body.
What i want to do here is to get us to take a minute to consider our breathing and to describe what Quiet Breathing is and the benefits of practising it.
The only thing i will say is that if you have a medical condition affecting your breathing do not follow this unless advised or sanctioned to do so by whomever is taking care of you.
Quiet breathing is our resting breathing which is not forced and when done correctly uses only our Diaphragm and External Intercostals (one of the muscles found between each rib). The Diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle with the External Intercostals very much in second place. It is the large, dome shaped muscle forming the floor of the thoracic (chest) cavity pretty much at the centre of our bodies. It sits underneath the lungs and on top of the abdominal contents which is a pretty pivotal position.
When we are exercising, moving around (going up some stairs) or when some illness affects our lung function (even a cold can do this) we are breathing in a “forced” way where we are using the accessary breathing muscles in addition to our Diaphragm to inhale (inspiration) and exhale (expiration). We have many accessory breathing muscles, in fact nearly every muscle in your chest and those attached above and below your ribs are accessory breathing muscles. You will of course know all about these after completing a swift run or even blowing into a wind instrument etc. Forced breathing is, for this reason of using some or all of these muscles, an active process both for inhalation and exhalation.
Quiet, or unforced, breathing uses only the Diaphragm and the External Intercostals for inhalation with no accessory muscle contractions. Quiet, or unforced, exhalation occurs due to the elastic recoil of the chest wall and lungs after they have been stretched during inhalation and so is a Passive Process involving no muscular contractions.
The problem that many people have, often those with sedentary seated jobs, is that when they are breathing in a “resting” state (i.e. they do not need to be breathing in a forced way) they breathe using the top of their chests and underuse their Diaphragm. Chesty breathing is very common but is not nearly as efficient as Diaphragm, quiet breathing.
When we inhale we need the Oxygen containing air to reach deep inside our lungs to small sac-like structures called Alveoli. It is at the Alveoli that the lungs deliver the Oxygen to the blood and where the blood releases the waste Carbon Dioxide for the lungs to exhale. This is the primary function of the lungs, to deliver the Oxygen used by every cell in our body via the blood to produce the energy needed for life and to release the Carbon Dioxide waste produced by this process.
Clearly if we are not using our Diaphragms properly when breathing then this primary function will be affected resulting in less Oxygen being delivered to our cells and not enough Carbon Dioxide being cleared from our bodies. Our cells are not then able to operate efficiently and, via a quirk in the way Carbon Dioxide is carried by the blood, blood acidity will rise. This in turn will lead to us breathing more often as the brain registers the rising Carbon Dioxide and acidity levels. You will start breathing in a shallow and often manner with many of your tissues unable to operate efficiently.
There is another great benefit to good quiet breathing using the Diaphragm. It stimulates the Parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest” side of our Autonomic nervous system. The Autonomic nervous system works at an unconscious level with it’s other side being the so called “fight or flight” or Sympathetic nervous system.
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight system, the ancient system responsible for readying the body for action. Part of this process is to stimulate the muscles resting tone to increase, they literally increase their tension as the body readies itself for more explosive action. This was fine back in our history and indeed it is the reason any of us are here now but with our stress levels in work and our busy daily lives it is now working against us. Back then we would use the built up Adrenaline etc in our very real fight or flight but today we, for the most part, cannot physically act upon our stressors to work off these effects. This means that we sit in bodies readied for physical activity with heightened resting muscle tones, increased Adrenaline levels and ultimately, with chronically increased stress hormone levels including Cortisol. Our neck muscles will pull more tightly into our heads increasing the probability of a tension headache, our bodies will not continue digestive processes for instance and our immune response will be depressed. There are more effects upon the body but it is obvious to see that chronic stress is not good for us.
The good news is that quiet Diaphragm breathing stimulates the opposite “rest and digest” side and so will reduce your stress levels. This is what mind-body exercises such as Yoga and Tai Chi are working on too.
The way to practise and familiarise yourself with quiet breathing is as follows:
Lie down on your bed/couch in whatever way helps you to relax. So that can include soft music and dimmed/no lights, whatever works for you to slow you down!
Breathe in a relaxed manner through your nose with one hand on the top of your abdomen and the other on the top of your chest. As you quietly breathe in only your lower, abdomen hand should rise for at least the first 3/4 of your in breath. This will ensure that you use only your Diaphragm on your in breath and not the top of the chest as so many of us, incorrectly, do. A good in breath should take 3 seconds at least to complete.
As you breathe out simply let go, allow the elastic recoil of your chest and lungs to passively exhale. Breathe out through your mouth. The only thing to note here is to allow your top hand to drop first then your abdomen hand in the reverse order of breathing in. This should take slightly longer than breathing in at 4 or so seconds.
Simply repeat this process, concentrating on the feeling of your in and out breaths for 5 to 10 minutes (longer if you have time and inclination).
Once you have mastered this feeling you can simple incorporate this correct quiet breathing into your daily life. You can do it all day at the computer at work or watching TV for instance, or any time you don’t need forced breathing. There is no doubt that you will feel it’s benefits.