Deep Breathing Exercises: Two Things You Should Know First
A lot of people do deep breathing exercises to help themselves relax and calm down. However, many of us misunderstand how the breath actually works. This means, at best, that we will not be getting the most out of the exercises, and at worst we could actually be causing harm. Through my Alexander Technique training I have learned many things about the breath as it relates to our overall coordination, but I believe there are two key things that, once we understand them, can really help us allow our breathing to function more fully and naturally.
1. Our Ribs Move with our Breath!
The ribs are extremely important for the functioning of our breath, yet most people don’t even realize they have a part to play.
Without getting too technical, our lungs are housed within our rib cage, and the diaphragm muscle attaches all the way around to the lowest ribs. So as the lungs fill with air (when we breathe in) the ribs raise up and out – all the way around, front, sides and back. When we breathe out, the ribs lower again.
Simply understanding and acknowledging that our ribs move with the breath, can have a huge impact on our breathing capacity, and the ability to breathe freely. If we’re under the misconception that all the expansion is out in front, or in our belly (even subconsciously) we will unknowingly be limiting our breathing capacity.
2. Don’t Take a Breath!
Holding the breath is one of the biggest sources of tension in the body. Maybe you’re holding your breath now? If so I encourage you not to take a breath, but to let out any breath you’ve been holding in, allowing the new breath to come in gently and naturally. If we actively take a breath we are most likely tightening up and sucking in. If we first let out any stale air, the in-breath will just come on its own. Except under perhaps extreme or specialized conditions, we don’t need to ever take a breath!
Try this: Without taking a breath first (!) let out whatever breath you have by letting the air out gently through the lips as if you are blowing out a candle. Let the lips come gently together and just simply notice the air come back in through your nose. Now put your hands on the side of your rib cage as you breathe out, then as you let the breath come in see if you can feel the movement of your ribs under your hands. If you can reach to put your hand on your back you’ll feel movement there too.
Knowing these things can challenge how we think about breathing in general and about breathing exercises in particular. Having a better understanding of just these two things, and putting them in the context of our overall coordination, can have a huge impact on our well-being.
Did you know these things already? If not, did anything change in your breathing just thinking about it differently? I challenge you to try just observing your breath and noticing these things – I think you’ll feel calmer already. Let me know how you got on.
It’s so interesting for you to mention the ribs going all the way around. I work with a trainer (actually, mentioned in my blog today!) and she’s talked a lot about my ribs and getting movement in the sides and back. I never thought about my ribs other than in the front of my body (and I should know better–I long ago studied the rib cage as a speech-language pathologist, but I think we were sort of stuck thinking about the front). As for breathing in general, I need the constant reminder. I do think I hold my breath. So I’m going to practice that this week. Thanks for the tips.
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Just being aware that the ribs do move with the breath can make so much difference – it was a real eye-opener for me when I first realized how much they could (and should) move! As for holding your breath – we all do it – when we’re concentrating, when we’re startled, when we’re afraid, etc, etc. If we start to notice we can at least let it go. Glad you liked the tips.
Had to come back and tell you that at my training session this week (which was after I read the blog), my trainer commented on my posterior ribs and talked about how we are so much less aware of them! So it was a “rib cage” kind of day!
Interesting, I’ve known how to take deep cleansing breaths and taking it into the belly but never really knew or understood the full rib involvement. As soon as I read it I realized I felt the side and back expansion. Having never put attention on those areas before I wasn’t aware of it.
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Sometimes we only need to have something brought to our attention and then it is obvious. Glad you could sense the movement 🙂
This is all new to me. I’m curious how this works when one is doing deep belly breathing. It seems counter to what you are describing. Does it work the same?
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Susan – a good question. First thing – we don’t actually breathe in our bellies. As I understand it, the rise and fall we can feel in the belly is actually the effect of the lungs and ribs expanding out and the diaphragm muscle pressing down on the organs beneath. So I would say belly breathing is actually a way of visualizing the breath, in a way that’s supposed to encourage fuller, deeper breathing. I think a problem can arise if you are pushing all your breath down to toward the belly while limiting (probably subconsciously) the movement of the ribs, which can happen if we don’t know they should actually move with the breath – so, in effect, you will still be limiting your intake of breath, actually the opposite, I would think, of the intent of the exercise. If, however, while visualizing the rise and fall in the belly we also allow for movement of the ribs, including an expansion to the sides and back, I believe you will allow for the possibility of a much deeper breath. So, if you like doing deep belly breathing, my advice would be to keep in mind that the ribs will be moving too, and see if you notice a difference in your breath. I hope that that makes sense. Let me know if you have further questions 🙂
Very good technique!!! I used to have the 7/11 exercise but this one sounds very simple way to deepen breathing and to cleanse the lungs.These exercises will also increase energy and decrease tension.Thank you!!
Glad you like the information, Harry. It’s amazing the difference just stopping and paying attention to the breath can make, especially if we have more accurate information about what is actually involved.
Such important tips, Imogen, thank you. Even though I practice yoga regularly and know how important the breath is, there are moments each day when I forget to breathe properly. And whenever my son is feeling stressed, I always tell him to stop what he’s doing and take a few slow, deep breaths just to even things out. It definitely helps.
Thanks, Cory. You might have your son focus more on the breathing out part of the process, if he’s not already. Likely to help even more with letting go of stress 🙂
Ah the breath . . .What a great topic. I enjoyed checking in with my breath as I read your post. Although my ribs are expanding, my diaphragm feels very tight and a bit stuck in the back tonight. I also work with the breath in my clinical practice so I can relate to tip #2 to just let the breath come on its own. Most children begin to hold their breath early on as a way to stuff emotions, especially if a parent demands that the child stop crying.
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It sounds like you know a lot about this yourself and have good self-awareness of your own breathing. It’s amazing what tension we can create “trying” to take a deep breath – focusing on the out-breath gets rid of that. Harmful habits can start very early – your comment about children is very perceptive.
A true timely post, it’s nice to get a reminder to take a deep breathe sometimes. For a strange reason I find that I actually hold my breathe when I get really busy. Can’t really figure it out, but I definitely am going to take notice of your tips on exhaling first before taking a breathe.
Jennifer – you are not alone with the breath-holding. I think it’s common for a lot of people to hold their breath when they’re very busy, concentrating hard… Conversely we’re likely to be more productive and think more clearly if we are breathing well, so keeping the breath in the back of your mind is very useful. AND it helps keep you calmer when you are very busy or in a hurry (another time when it’s easy to start holding the breath).
I think I did know this but I also think we tend to forget how to breathe sometimes…It is important to take some time to be AWARE of our breathing not just to be doing it automatically. I also tend to hold my breath when busy or doing something intense ..especially when exercising… so thanks for the reminder to be more aware and involved in the breathing process
Julie – good that you know this, even though you haven’t been paying much attention. As I said in my reply to Jennifer (above) it’s very common to hold the breath when busy. Being aware of your breathing when your exercising is also very important as you say. Just keeping it in mind can make a real difference.
Love this post, Imogen and I especially love watching the breathing ribs video. Remembering to release to let new breath take care of itself, not force anything seems key to me. As for your suggestion/Alexander Technique of blowing out through the lips, this is also actually a qigong technique for energizing the kidneys, especially if you open and round your back very slightly and make the sound of breath audible.
Thank you for this great inspiration to relax into breath!
Glad you like the little video. I thought it was cool! Interesting that qigong has a similar technique for a different purpose – though as the breath is so important for life itself I can see that stimulating the breath to work more naturally and fully will undoubtedly have very many benefits for body and mind. I also love your expression, “relax into breath” – that’s perfect!
This is explained really well. It’s one of the things I teach my clients is to breathe like that. So often we don’t or take shallow breaths. I’m guilty myself, and that is the first thing I do when I’m feeling stressed out is to take those energizing deep breaths and it does work.
It’s interesting how even though we know something in stressful situations we go right back to our habit (in this case holding the breath/shallow breathing). But at least if we know it and notice, we can change and allow the breath to start flowing again. Love that your doing and teaching this yourself!
Thank you for the explanation of how our bodies need to move and breathe; I find very often that I am holding my breath, which may explain why I am feeling stressed and anxious so many times during my day; I think it also makes me very tired when I am not breathing properly. I did the breathing exercises as you described, focusing on my ribs and how it felt to fill my lungs gently and fully, and it is very calming and re-energizing, too. I need to remember this now!
Glad you liked it, Donna. It definitely takes practice to stay aware of your breathing during the day and all our many and various activities. Well worth keeping in mind as much as possible.
Yes this was the first time I heard this explained so fully and so well. I feel the stretch all the way round now and it feels good. Thanks!
Glad you could notice the movement and all around expansion. I know I used to think it was all happening in the front. Understanding better what’s involved really started to change things for me.
lol- If anyone has ever had a broken rib, then they KNOW how the ribs are connected to breathing as ever breath is certainly felt! I’m one of those who holds their breath- a lot. Or at least I think I do because I become aware of it at really odd times during the day. Sometimes, I can’t imagine how I’m still alive because I realize I’m holding my breath (just did it now!) and can’t remember when I took the last breath. Not a good habit, especially since I understand how important good breathing is to nourish our entire bodies!
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Absolutely, Candace! Luckily I’ve not had that particular experience (breaking a rib, that is). Re holding your breath – at least you’re aware of what you’re doing. Just noticing is the first step to change – after all if you don’t notice you can’t do anything about it.
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Yes of course I do know having studied AT. I have to say it was a huge revelation to me when I started. Now I love breathing the AT way and feeling my whole ribcage move. Very calming, helps with everything.
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Doesn’t it just! And to be honest, the Alexander Technique approach has changed my mind on whether I even want to do certain types of “deep breathing exercises” at all…
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