As a body-based therapist, for years I’ve told group participants and clients to “breathe through the mouth down to the belly” when I’ve been leading sessions. Then, when going about their day-to-day lives to go back to breathing through the nose.
Now I’ve discovered that this information, whilst not incorrect, is pretty vague. And that correct breathing, whether in a therapy session or day-to-day, can be much better explained.
How 90% of us get it wrong
Research has found that around 90% of us begin the inhale of our average breath by pulling our diaphragm up, compressing the lungs and creating a smallish inhale in the top of our chest. This not only results in a sub-optimal level of oxygen intake but also reinforces muscular holding in the neck, throat and shoulder areas.
The classic tell-tale sign of this bad, “vertical” breathing can be spotted when you stand and breathe normally in front of a mirror. You will notice that your shoulders move perceptibly up and down. If you aim to breathe normally and sense the movement of your diaphragm you may also notice a slight vertical movement.
Like this, we stay somewhat in “fight or flight” mode throughout the day, making relaxation and good sleep harder to achieve when we want it. We also reinforce pre-existing holding patterns around our shoulders, neck and throat. This means that any early life trauma or conditioning that we’re carrying around is constantly being held on to and not released. Madness!
What my body taught me while sea swimming
Throughout last winter, I’ve been jumping in the sea every day and doing a 15 - 20 minute swim. It felt cold at first, entering the water, then I got used to it. The tricky part, for the average sea swimmer, actually comes when you exit the water. While submersed in the cold, your brain directs heat from the periphery to protect your organs. When you come out, this process reverses and if the air temperature is low then you can find yourself in a hypothermic reaction called “after drop.” As heat pours from your core back to the periphery and from there is released to the cold air, so your core temperature drops below 36 Celsius and for a while you enter a shock state. This happened regularly to me many times and I learned to get my clothes on quick to slow the process down.
Then, what I also noticed while exiting the water was that my body seemed to start breathing differently all by itself, rather as though some ancient program had swung into action. My belly would balloon out, forcing an inhale and then relax, allowing an exhale. It was accompanied by a primal, atavistic feeling like I was an animal breathing to survive. It felt kind of scary but also very “real.”
Reich, Asthma and COPD
Throughout these months I was studying Reichian Therapy and also reading articles about COPD, as a relative had been recently diagnosed with this condition. I noticed a clear parallel between my seashore breathing, how Reich was trying to get people to breathe, and how medical professionals were retraining folks with asthma or COPD to improve their condition. It was all pretty much the same.
Stick your belly out!
Most of us learned early on not to stick our belly out. It’s not considered a cool look. You won’t find people on Instagram modelling like this. You won’t find people out seeking partners at the club deliberately sticking their bellies out. We pull our bellies in to try and look good. Unfortunately, this is not at all healthy.
The perfect inbreath should be initiated at a belly level. Instead of pulling your diaphragm up, closing your throat and trying to suck air in like someone half-strangled - push your belly out. Try to make yourself look like a Buddha figure, like you’ve got a balloon under your t shirt. Flexing your abdominals forwards like this draws your lungs down, creating a vacuum, and air comes in naturally through a relaxed throat. It even doesn’t matter so much whether it comes in through the nose or the mouth.
To exhale, simply relax your abdominals and the process reverses.
What about the chest, perhaps I hear you ask? Ideally, once the belly has begun to inflate, you also expand your chest in all lateral directions by widening your intercostals (the muscles between the ribs). Then, once your belly has begun to deflate, your chest can do the same. Note that this expansion of the chest should only be lateral - front, back and sides - and not up or down. If you like being thorough, you can loosely hold a piece of string around your chest and see if it naturally expands 1 to 2 cms when you inhale.
If you’re new to this, then focusing on the chest as well as the belly can be a bit much. So, feel free to start by focusing on your belly, not paying attention to your chest. Once you’ve got the belly part down, then check out how your chest is moving.
This type of breathing is known by different names, such as horizontal, diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing.
Good breathing for day-to-day
Breathe like the above with your mouth slightly closed for optimal day-to-day breathing. Air will naturally come in and go out through the nose.
A really great time to practise this is when seated at the computer. This is a time when many people breathe vertically and thus increase their sense of stress. Do a minute of this horizontal breathing before beginning work and this will help your brain to stay entuned to this rhythm once you start.
Breathing for Bioenergetics
If you’re into Bioenergetics, then this technique is also perfect, especially for static postures. The only change you need to make is to keep your mouth gently open, thus allowing air to naturally flow in and out through there. This will slightly increase the level of charge in your body-core and will support the release that comes with the posture you’re doing.
If you want to go deeper with it, then here are a couple of techniques you can add.
Firstly, you can move directly from the inhale to the exhale, and vice versa, with no gap in between. Secondly, without changing the technique in any way, you can press your belly and chest out to the max. Both of these will increase the charge of fresh energy building inside still further.
Why it’s usually not easy
If you’ve been trying this technique and have found it tricky, this is quite normal and there’s a reason why this happens. The years of bad breathing we’ve been doing have imprinted layers of tension all over our muscle system and fascia. This originates from any incidences of trauma or traumatic conditioning we’ve experienced earlier in life. It’s unfortunately unrealistic to expect all this to dissolve away at once.
Getting to perfect, primate breathing will be a journey. But keep practising it and keep doing Bioenergetics and Reichian Therapy work and you will get there. As layers of muscular armouring little by little dissolve so you will begin to realise just how blissful something as simple as breathing can actually be.