I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, breathing from your diaphragm is one of the best things you can do to improve your health (and it’s truly a quick fix!). Doing so will help your body heal itself from a variety of issues, like anxiety, shortness of breath, heart issues (by bringing in more oxygen), and so much more!
In order to re-train your body to do this, you need to know if you are suffering from one of the three common breath holding patterns. In this post, we’ll cover chest breathing – specifically what it is, how it affects your body and how to correct the issue.
Before we delve into the topic, it’s good to see what this pattern looks like. Here’s a great illustration from Buzzle.
How does someone chest breathe?
As I mentioned earlier, chest breathing is a normal part how the body functions, but it should only be used as a last resort. Think about what happens when you find yourself in a scary situation. Do you find yourself taking short, incomplete breaths, making it harder and harder for you to you to fully catch your breath? That is EXACTLY what chest breathing is and it can have some seriously negative health repercussions. Let’s look at a few of them.
What does chest breathing do to your mind and body?
Breathing from your chest is a natural thing to do when we’re in a state of fear, that’s why many people do not see a problem with this way of breathing. However, following this pattern for an extended period of time, rather than breathing from your diaphragm can cause several health problems.
- Chronic upper body tension. When you force yourself to breathe through your chest, rather than starting at your belly, the secondary respiratory muscles get used instead of the primary ones. When the secondary muscles are forced to be used more often than necessary, it is very likely that they will tire quickly and be sure to alert you that they don’t want to be used improperly!
- Digestive issues. Constantly holding in your stomach prevents the organs in your abdomen from getting adequate circulation. This, in turn, prevents the body from having the ability to release the toxins it prevented your body from absorbing, especially through excretion.
- Weight loss/gain. Digestive issues don’t just effect your ability to go to the bathroom, it plays directly into your weight loss efforts. One of the most common digestive issues is constipation. Yes, this is kind of a gross subject, but it is extremely important to improving your health. You know that when you are constipated, you aren’t able to poop as often as you should. This is bad because when you poop, your body is essentially expelling the bad things that it cannot use. If you aren’t able to do so regularly, your body loses the ability to absorb key nutrients – that’s right, nutrient absorption happens in the digestive tract – which prevents you from achieving your weight loss goals.
- Heart issues. As discussed in my previous post on diaphragmatic breathing, the heart is directly tied to the way you breathe, because of the oxygen it has access to. When you breathe from your chest, your lungs cannot fully expand, which prevents the body from getting the maximum amount of oxygen it needs to perform at its best.. This is important to keep in mind because the heart pumps oxygenated blood to different parts of the body and if there isn’t enough oxygen, the heart will react by pumping harder to try to deliver more oxygenated blood, creating a vicious cycle of harder work for itself.
Chest breathing doesn’t just impact your mental health, it is sometimes caused by mental distress. In order to better help those who suffer from this unhealthy breathing pattern, it is wise to examine the underlying cause and treat that rather than focusing on the after effects.
Chest breathing usually starts when you are in a stressful situation, again, because it is a survival mechanism humans have developed over the years. Now that we know why this breathing pattern occurs, it’s important to understand how our modern lives contribute to the problem.
Men and women are equally vulnerable to dealing with this, but for different reasons. In America, men are expected to be able to handle anything and everything that comes their way without complaining. How ridiculous is that!?
Women, on the other hand, tend to become chest breathers because of the unrealistic standard of beauty in the United States. From a young age, girls are taught that having ample breasts and a small waist is the ideal body type, which is the perfect pressure cooker for chest breathing!
Now that we know WHY men and women are susceptible to chest breathing, we can see create tools that help undo this pattern.
Fixing the problem
Chest breathing is an easy issue to correct, if you give yourself the time to practice these tools:
- Take 3 to 5 minutes every day and consciously try to get the belly to expand when you inhale and contract when you exhale. Do this for three to five breaths, then take step back and see how you feel
- SLOW DOWN – since chest breathing is triggered by anxiety-inducing situations, take time each day to purposefully slow down and think about the good people and things you have in your life. It sounds trite, but trust me, it is one of the best solutions available!
- Give away any clothes that are too small for you. While you may think that the smaller clothes will motivate you to be the healthiest version of yourself, it is trapping your body in an unhealthy breathing pattern. I know when I take off clothes that are too tight I feel better instantly!
Chest breathing is a common problem that can be easily resolved with time and patience with yourself (this is important!). Even if you can only practice correct breathing for 5 minutes a day, it is so worth the effort, and your body will thank you in many different ways.
I’d love to hear what you think of this breathing pattern and/or if you’ve tried the correcting exercises.
In my last post about the 8 limbs of yoga, I explained the yamas, or a general moral code of how to treat others. Equally as important are the niyamas, or the principles that guide how you treat yourself! This is an amazing illustration from Five Pillars Yoga:
What exactly is niyama?
The niyamas are the observations we make in our lives. Every time something happens, we either get a good or bad feeling about it. The niyamas are our guides for ensuring that great feelings are flowing through our hearts and minds as often as humanly possible.
- Sauca: cleanliness, purity. What happens when you wake up each morning? Do you feel excited to see what the day holds? This is the principle of sauca – allowing yourself to see the infinite possibilities of what lies ahead.
- Santosa: contentment. Have you ever taken time to reflect on something you’ve done in the past and agonized over what you could have done differently if you had the wisdom you are blessed with now? DON’T!! Santosa is the principle of forgiveness. You may not have acted in a way you are proud of today, but if you use that memory to create a better version of yourself, those past indiscretions are serving a greater purpose.
- Tapas: practicing with zeal and discipline. Did your mom ever tell you that you should do everything to the best of your ability, regardless of the task? That is the essence of tapas! When you give your all to a task, it usually brings great rewards. I can’t tell you how many times I have agonized over how to improve a homework assignment, only to have my professor give me a stellar review of it. The old saying is right, you get what you give.
- Swadhyaya: self-study. Knowing yourself is one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your life, especially when you are trying to get healthy, whether it’s physical or mental. We’re in the perfect season to discuss physical health… All of the Halloween candy, quickly followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas meals used to be a time where I gave up trying to lose weight, but you don’t have to (with my help)! I love eating all of the comfort foods on the Thanksgiving table and I would drink my mom’s homemade lemonade/iced tea like it was water. Rather than forcing myself to give everything up, I made one promise to myself, alternate a small glass of mom’s lemonade with a tall glass of water. When I did this, I noticed that if I went to get another helping of a comfort food, I took two spoonfuls instead of three or four. I’ve been using this trick ever since to enjoy the holiday meals WITHOUT the weight gain 😊
- Isvara pradihana: surrender. This is related to santosa. When you’ve realized that you have done something you aren’t proud of – like overeating – take a step back and tell yourself that it’s OK and make a promise to do better next time. It does absolutely no good to beat yourselves up. This is a huge lesson to learn, but the more you practice it, it’ll become second nature before you know it!
Now that you have a better understanding of the niyamas, which ones do you feel you need to work on?
Many people in America think that yoga is all about being able to get your body into specific positions, but it is so much more than that! Yoga incorporates the mind, body and spirit to create the healthiest versions of those who adhere to the practice. We call this the 8-limb path. The path starts with Yama, or your principles/moral code.
What is Yama?
Yama is the set of attitudes, beliefs and actions we use in our lives, especially when practicing yoga. It is known by different names in other religions – The 10 Commandments in Judaism and Christianity, the Five Pillars in Islam – but there’s common threads running through them all. These are the themes in yoga:
- Ahimsa: non-violence and reverence for life. This is one of the greatest lessons anybody can learn because it takes away most of the stressors we encounter in life. Ever had a bad day at work where a coworker criticizes everything you do in front of your boss? It is very easy to get annoyed with them and complain to others about what they’ve done, but in the long run, it hurts you much more than them. You increase your stress levels every time you recall what they’ve done to others and if they’ll do it again. That endless worry leads to health problems like weight gain, heart disease and anxiety if left uncontrolled. When practicing ahimsa, you are much slower to react to what people are doing and that allows the people who are causing problems to expose themselves while you are becoming your best self.
- Satya: truthfulness in yourself and the world. Self-awareness and knowing the world you live in is an incredible tool for your wellbeing. Intertwined with ahimsa, satya is about recognizing the personality traits in yourself and others and knowing how to use them to your advantage, WITHOUT exploitation! Acknowledging the things people do and say is crucial to maintaining a sense of peace. Most people conflate acknowledgement with criticism, but they are very different, once you learn how to harness the power of satya. If a loved one, for example, is making bad decisions that are negatively affecting you, you can practice satya by explaining to them how their actions are hurting you and setting up boundaries for yourself. The key is being honest with them and giving them the chance to change.
- Asteya: no stealing – taking physical property, but also not stealing emotionally from ourselves and others. When we worry or let someone else put us in a bad mood, we are guilty of asteya. Asteya also relates to the attitude we have towards life and the events connected those attitudes. Have you noticed that when you are constantly worried about how you’ll be able to pay for the bills, you never seem to make enough money? Or have you ever wanted to talk to someone and suddenly you get a call or text message from them? These are examples of asteya manifesting itself in your life.
- Aparigraha: non-posessiveness. The best way to fully understand this Yama is to break the word down – “a” means cnot” or “none,” “pari” translates to “all sides,” and “graha” means “grab.” Taking all of this into account, you’ll realize that aparigraha doesn’t just relate to having too many material possessions – it also provides a look into how you should treat your relationship with the other people in your life. It is OK to ask for help every once in a while, but you must not be so dependent upon them that they cannot fulfill the requirements of their lives.
- Brahmacarya: moderation. This goes hand-in-hand with aparigraha. If you come to the realization that you don’t need much to be happy, you are able to realize if and when you’re giving into the materialistic side of American culture. A personal example is when I have a little bit more money from my paycheck and I see my friends and colleagues buzzing about whatever new things they’ve bought or done – if I’m not in tune with aparigraha, I definitely start buying more things that I don’t need.
Now that you are aware of the first limb of yoga, the yamas, which ones do you feel you need to work on?
As I mentioned in a previous post, breathing from your diaphragm is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. Unfortunately, in America, we are taught from a young age to hold our stomachs in and breathe from the chest (girls are particularly vulnerable to this!). Holding the stomach in for extended periods of time causes the person to start contracting the belly and expanding the chest with every inhale. This is called reverse breathing and it can have multiple negative effects on your body.
Here’s a great illustration of the three differences between the two of ways to breathe.
What does reverse breathing do to your mind and body?
Breathing from your chest instead of the diaphragm can cause a number of issues.
Constantly holding your stomach in, whether you are physically doing it or wearing constricting clothes, can cause:
- Digestive ailments like indigestion, heartburn, bloating and gas because the organs in the stomach are being squeezed
- Upper body tension, specifically in the back of your neck, jaw, upper shoulders and back,
- Coordination problems because your breathing pattern has been reversed and it cannot support your muscles properly
- Occasional confusion and/or disorientation as your body isn’t given the opportunity to get the maximum amount of air it needs to function at its best.
Are you a reverse breather?
As I mentioned earlier reverse breathing is a common problem in the United States, and could possibly be the biggest threat to our health as a nation.
To know if you are a reverse breather, all you have to do is look at the front of your body in the mirror. Your belly should expand with each inhale and contract with every exhale; if your belly contacts on the inhale and expands on the exhale, you’re a reverse breather.
Fixing the problem
Luckily, this breathing pattern can be reversed, no pun intended, if you give yourself some time to practice these two tools:
- In your spare time, consciously try to get the belly to expand when you inhale – after 30-60 seconds, step back and see how you feel
- SLOW DOWN – many people get stuck in a reverse breathing pattern when they try to do to much
Reverse breathing is a common problem that can be easily resolved with time and patience with yourself (this is important!). I was a reverse breather for my entire childhood and about 5 years into adulthood – I’m now 31 – and I feel so much better!! Even if you can only practice correct breathing for 5 minutes a day, it is so worth the effort, and your body will thank you in many different ways.
I’d love to hear what you think of this breathing pattern and/or if you’ve tried the correcting exercises.
During my first weekend of training to become a yoga instructor, I learned a lot of great information about proper breathing techniques that I had to share with you guys!
We spent quite a while taking about the importance of being able to breathe from your diaphragm, which is the primary muscle we are supposed to use to breathe. It’s a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that’s located in the lower section of your ribs. You know that you’re using your diaphragm to breathe if every time you intake, your stomach expands.
Why you need to breathe from your diaphragm
Growing up I thought breathing from my chest was the best way to breathe because I was allowing my lungs to fully expand. It turns out that was I WRONG!!
You see, your diaphragm sits just below your lungs and when you use it to breathe, it will sink down closer to your intestines so your lungs have the maximum amount of space to expand. If you don’t breathe from your diaphragm, you’re not only depriving your body of the oxygen it needs, you’re not allowing it to release its excess carbon dioxide stores.
Organs connected to the diaphragm
Although your diaphragm stretches across the width of your chest cavity, it has special openings that make a path for blood vessels and nerves to pass through. This creates a communication channel between the organs that are situated on either side of it.
What sits above the diaphragm?
Your lungs and heart are the only two organs that are above the diaphragm. As I’m sure you know, these organs help you:
- Breathe in enough oxygen,
- Circulate fresh, oxygen-rich blood to all your tissues.
What organs are below the diaphragm?
Your stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, small & large intestines, spleen and kidneys are situated below the diaphragm. When these organs have enough room to function they will:
- Properly digest your food,
- Absorb important nutrients,
- Store eliminate toxins,
- Break down poisons,
- Destroy harmful bacteria,
- Produce new blood cells,
- Filter and regulate the concentrations of water and solutes in the blood,
- Excrete wwaste products through urine
What are the consequences of not breathing from your diaphragm?
As you can see, so many of your major organs are connected to the diaphragm. Logically, it makes sense to note that if you don’t allow the it to fully expand and communicate with the organs connected to it, there are health issues you’re more likely to develop. Some of the most common issues are heart disease, joint/muscle pain, weight gain, fatigue, dizziness and exhaustion.
The type of issue you develop is related to the different types of non-diaphragmatic breathing people do. Over the next few weeks (a new one every Tuesday so you have time to take in the information), I’ll explain what these breathing patterns are and how they affect your body.
Breathing from your diaphragm is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. Learning how to do so is simple – when you’re in a quiet place take 2-3 minutes to lie down and focus on your breath. Every time you inhale, make a concerted effort to breathe from your stomach and not your chest.
During this time try to breathe only through your nostrils and every time you inhale, it should become more and more natural for the bulk of that air to go into your belly, causing it to expand.
Don’t worry if this doesn’t become second nature right away. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I breathed from my chest through my childhood and it took me a solid 3 months of practice to make the switch from chest breathing to diaphragmatic breathing.
Remember that each time you can breathe through your diaphragm, you are doing something good for your body and it will use the benefits to its advantage. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect!
For this Wellness Wednesday, I wanted to take a little time to explain what my blog is all about. I mentioned earlier that I have used the ancient healing arts of Ayurveda and yoga in the past, and when I really followed them, I was the healthiest I’d ever been! To give you a better idea of what I mean, imagine getting multiple (3 to 5) headaches and issues with upset stomach/heartburn every week – Tylenol was ALWAYS in my medicine cabinet.
Then when I had a back injury that put me on bed rest for 5 months, I had to reevaluate my relationship with food and went back to the basics. Here’s a great quote from Ayurveda:
During my recovery, I focused on eating simple, protein rich foods that would properly fuel my body. Since I couldn’t move very well, I stocked my refrigerator with Chobani yogurt that had fruit on the bottom. The yogurt had the protein I needed to maintain my muscles and fats to insure that the tissues in my joints wouldn’t deteriorate.
Two months into my recovery, my doctor yelled at me because she thought I was ignoring her order to rest because I apparently had lost a significant amount of weight. By the end of my recovery, I had lost 30 pounds!! I owe that weight loss to Ayurveda, which is the ancient Indian tradition of seeing how the foods you eat react with YOUR body (no two people are alike so following a cookie cutter diet is stupid and potentially dangerous!). I’ll do other posts explaining the basics of Ayurveda, but let me give you a brief example.
Ayurveda and me
My body type is called pitta and the main element in it is fire. This shows in my ruddy complexion, my occasional fiery temper and my tendency to experience heartburn. Because the main element in my body type is fire, it is important for me to avoid very spicy foods because I can overheat. The best foods for me, especially in the hotter months, are cooling foods like water, berries, melons, leafy green veggies, yogurt, etc. Basically, you should visualize water being dumped on forest fires – water keeps the fire from damaging too many things. My body is the same way!
Again, I’ll do more detailed posts soon regarding ayurveda, so don’t worry if you’re not a pitta like me.
How does yoga play into this?
Most people know that yoga is a series of gentle stretches and poses that help our bodies maintain flexibility. What you don’t know, however, is that those stretches and poses can also tell your body to fix certain blockages.
As I get deeper into my training as a yoga instructor, I’ll be able to explain this in more detail, but think about when you are hunched over a computer for a few hours and you have a sudden urge to get up, stretch and walk around. That is your body’s way of maintaining itself. And that’s exactly what yoga aims to accomplish, help your body realize what is out of sync and do gentle actions to correct it.
Combining the two to create a new experience: YogaVeda
My new healthy lifestyle model is called YogaVeda because I teach you how to harness the power of food and movement to become the healthiest you possible. I will never tell you that you need to get up at 3am and do an intense military-style workout. I’ll also never tell you to completely eliminate a food or meal from your diet (unless you’re allergic!); I just help you find a better version of it.
If you combine good, nutrient dense food (because we all need to eat!) and simple, regular movement, you will be surprised at what you’re actually capable of!