Whether you have a respiratory condition such as asthma or simply feel that you aren't reaching your full breathing potential, supporting how you breathe through movement and exercise can help you thrive in both body and mind.
Put simply, breathing inhales oxygen into the body and exhales carbon dioxide out. This happens on a large scale through the lungs, but also in each and every one of the cells throughout your entire body.
The respiratory system provides the means for vital oxygen to enter our bodies via the lungs, where it binds to hemoglobin in the blood, and then is ultimately transported to every cell. The carbon dioxide we exhale is the byproduct of each cell's processing of the oxygen or 'cellular respiration'—much like the body's exhaust fumes.
Healthy lungs working optimally take in about a quart of air (half a liter) roughly 12-15 times each minute. They work in concert with the cardiovascular system for oxygen delivery, with all the blood in the body passed through the lungs each minute. Although we may view the lungs as bags that fill with air, in fact they are more like porous, elastic sea sponges in texture.
The respiratory system also filters out dust, bacteria and other microbes that might have a negative effect on our health. It has a protective mucous lining (throughout the nose, mouth, pharynx, larynx, trachea and lungs), and if the lungs sense pollution, the nervous system is signaled to produce shallower breaths for protection, which results in less oxygen to cells.
Restoring the breath
Supporting respiratory health and increasing oxygenation in the lungs may lead to toxin elimination, better sleep, recovery and immune function. Our brains demand up to 25 percent of the oxygen we breathe in, so concentration, focus and cognition can suffer with reduced breathing efficiency. Furthermore, just breathing through the nose rather than the mouth increases immunity by boosting nitric oxide levels to kill off invaders.
As we age, lung cells take in less oxygen, so we need to maximize this capacity where we can, particularly through regular movement. The respiratory system also includes the muscles and fascia (connective tissue) that control breathing. This includes the intercostal muscles between the ribs and the diaphragm, a shelf of muscle laying across the bottom of the ribcage that separates the heart and lungs ('chest cavity') from the digestive organs, liver and kidneys ('abdominal cavity').
The diaphragm is responsible for about 70 percent of breathing—when we inhale, it contracts and draws air in as the lungs expand, and on exhalation it extends back to expel carbon dioxide.
Breathing may be affected by lack of exercise or poor upper body posture, both of which reduce strength and flexibility in the chest area. Long periods of time hunched on chairs or over our phones can inhibit our ability to fully fill our lungs when inhaling.
An open front body and easily lifting chest are vital for the space and healthy muscular action around the diaphragm needed for optimal breathing. Gentle exercise is also important to tone this part of the body and loosen any mucus buildup in the system.
Cardiovascular exercise that increases the heart rate (such as swimming, cycling and dancing) helps the respiratory system by forcing it to deliver more oxygen to sustain the increased effort in muscle tissues.
At least 20 minutes of consistent exertion, done regularly, strengthens the diaphragm and intercostal muscles and makes the whole respiratory system more efficient.
Tidal volume (the amount of air you breathe in or out in a single breath) rises, and alveoli (tiny cavities in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged) increase in number.
Exercise is only one part of the whole picture. If the exercise is performed with breathing patterns that remain tight and shallow, it can contribute to holding stress within the body rather than allowing release. For healthy breathing, the belly area needs to be able to fully relax on inhale, and to contract appropriately on the out-breath to facilitate a full and deep emptying of stale, old air in the lower lungs, and allowing the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system to calm.
According to Dr Jonathan P. Parsons at the Ohio State University Asthma Center, "In healthy people. . . even at maximum exercise intensity, we only use 70 percent of the possible lung capacity." Lung capacity can be used as a marker for general health,1 and for many this tends to be limited to either the top of the lung or the bottom rather than utilizing the entire surface. This means less natural fluidity in the spine as we breathe, as well as reduced core stabilization through reduced spinal support.2
In thoracic (chest) breathing, or 'secondary breathing,' when we're stressed or the diaphragm can't move fully, our breath moves to the upper chest and shoulders. During the fight-or-flight response, this causes faster, shallow breaths for quick oxygenation of the brain. Many people get stuck in this pattern, using up energy and creating tension in the neck and shoulders, with postural 'holding,' jaw clenching and sensations shut off in these overworked areas.
By contrast, diaphragmatic or 'primary' breathing uses the diaphragm to more efficiently fill and empty the lungs completely—the chest expands and the diaphragm moves downward to inhale, rising back up as the chest drops to exhale. Lying down, this can be seen as the belly rising and falling. It's the most energy-efficient, oxygenating breath and the least stressful to the muscle system. We can feel this by lying down and placing our hands at our bottom ribs to notice the movement potential there.
Upper chest breathing often leads to a degree of hyperventilation, where too much carbon dioxide is exhaled leading to blood vessel constriction and reduced blood flow to the brain. This is part of the stress and trauma pattern linked to reduced motor skill, increased agitation and lower pain threshold.
Simple floor sequence for respiratory health
Respiratory health involves looking to slow down breathing wherever possible and helping to unravel tightness around the shoulders, back, chest and abdomen through a focus on full exhalations.
The psoas muscle that joins the legs to the spine also tightens with stress, and because it links into the diaphragm, it can contribute to the holding and quickening of breath that may be seen alongside lower back issues.
This set of floor exercises helps to free the diaphragm, psoas, shoulders and neck for our most easeful, efficient breath patterns, while making space for full diaphragmatic and intercostal movement. Doing this while lying down allows us to free these areas when they don't need to be involved in holding us upright from gravity.
Full breathing also helps our postural abdominal support. The quadratus lumborum—a back muscle, but also the deepest of the abdominal muscles—shares a fascial connection with the diaphragm and the psoas in the lower back, at the lumbar vertebrae.
When full diaphragm-based breathing does not occur, these muscles are prone to weakness and further contribute to low back pain.
Lying spine undulation
Lying with knees bent, feet hip-width apart on the ground, inhale to arch your back and raise the belly, lifting the waist and moving the tailbone down toward the ground.
With the exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as the lungs empty.
As the motion becomes free, allow the chin to move down to meet the chest as you breathe in and lift to the ceiling as you exhale, tracking a line up and down the back of the skull with the head heavy on the ground.
Feldenkrais 'half-bridge' roll
From the same starting point, on an inhalation, let one knee drop out to the side, rolling onto the side of that foot, then easily exhale it back. Then move to the other leg, so the motion alternates side to side with the breath.
When you feel rooted through the foot on the ground and as you become more fluid, you can allow the pelvis on that side to lift, letting the belly roll with the knee dropping out. In this way, as you inhale and open the chest, a back-arch evolves, and you can lift up to open the chest, squeezing between the shoulder blades with each in-breath.
Lying with feet at least hip-width apart and arms by your side, feel good contact with the base of the big toe. As you inhale and bring the arms up and over the shoulders, direct the lift into the chest rather than the lower back. Open the arms as wide as the shoulders feel comfortable.
On the exhale, lower the spine back down, vertebra by vertebra, hands coming to meet the ground in sync with the tailbone.
Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, face and jaw soft. Eventually, hold the pose for as long as you feel neither stress nor strain in the body or breath.
Standing sequence for respiratory strength
Coming to upright from the ground allows us to lift up through the front of the body, where posture can tend to be collapsed from stress or sitting habits. This set of exercises opens the chest and also involves the arms to strengthen the pectoral muscles across the top of the chest that support our breathing action. Keep the shoulders softening away from the ears and the breath long and smooth.
Standing with feet hip-width apart and holding an imaginary basketball in front of your chest, inhale to reach one hand back behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly. Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, then inhaling that back. Move from side to side, retaining focus on the moving hand.
Creating space at the sides of the torso to open the intercostal muscles between the ribs can be done by lifting the arms above the head. Start by holding the wrist of the left arm with the right hand and drawing over to the right to lengthen the whole of the left side. Keep the chest open to prioritize height and length over how far you bend. Move to the other side.
Interlink your fingers and turn your palms up to the sky. Reach up height through the side body, and with a steady gaze, inhale your heels up from the ground and exhale back down again.
Step one foot back into a high lunge, with feet still hip-width apart and parallel. Step only as far as your lower back feels comfortable, as you draw up your belly to support it. Open both arms out to the side, with elbows higher than your shoulders, so your arms feel supported by the belly rather than by shoulder tension. Release your lower jaw and breathe fully on the exhalation (even sighing out) to stay in a strong position without stress.
Resting for breath into the back body
Coming to a fully resting position after movement allows the nervous system to come back down to a sense of safety and an easy, full breath. Lying on your front, with arms and shoulders in the most comfortable position for you, allows you to feel your breath in your belly. As it cannot expand forward with the inhale, this also encourages opening into the back of the lungs and lower back as you breathe in—an area often underused in many breathing patterns. Stay in this position for as long as possible, with full and kind attention on the beginning, middle and end of each breath.