One of the most amazing things we do all the time is breathe. From the first breath we take as a baby through to the last breath we take when we die, the cycle of breath continues whether or not we notice. Our breath is essential to our survival - we can only last about 4 to 6 minutes without it. Free breathing massages all our organs including the heart, decompresses our spine, oxygenates each and every cell in our body, and relaxes the mind.
Take a moment or two to notice how you breathe. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on the side of your lower ribcage. Do not take in more air than you normally would do, but rather, quietly observe your breath and notice which hand is doing most of the moving. Is it the rib hand? Good. Notice how your belly is expanding with each breath too. Place both your hands on your lower ribcage now. Relax your abdomen, and as you inhale a normal amount of air, feel your ribcage expand all around. Allow the air to come out all by itself. Notice how your spine moves. If you are lying on your back or stomach, notice how your pelvis moves. Are your legs moving too? Your breath is breathing you and in so doing, is moving you.
Why all this fuss about breathing? Why should we care about how we breathe? Because poor breathing strategies have real health consequences on a physical and a psychological level, and we tend to breathe rather often. It is not like we can decide to stop breathing for a while, so changing to a more optimal breathing pattern can have a huge impact on the ease with which we live in our bodies.
Over breathing, or chronic hyperventilating is a very common breathing pattern that can have many significant consequences. Hyperventilation causes a loss of carbon dioxide from our body which makes the blood more alkaline. In this alkaline environment our hemoglobin, which are the buses that carry the oxygen that we breathe, now has a harder time releasing the oxygen to the cells. As a result, the cells get less oxygen, and through feedback loops, the body signals a need for more air, so the person breathes more frequently, which usually leads to more loss of CO2. The alkaline environment also causes more calcium to enter the muscles and nerve tissue, making them more excitable than they should be, and causes the arteries of the brain, heart and body to constrict, which means reduced blood flow to these tissues. Symptoms of hyperventilation include headaches, chronic muscle tension, chest tightness, cold hands and feet, digestive issues, dizziness, lack of ability to concentrate, irritability, shortness of breath, anxiety, fatigue and even low back or pelvic pain, as when the breath isn't right, the other deep core stabilizer muscles have difficulty controlling the movement of the vertebrae and pelvis. (Some medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease may result in an acid environment, so hyperventilation may be the body's way of trying to rebalance the blood pH).
Some hints that you may be hyperventilating include chest breathing, (place one hand on the chest and one on the side of the ribs - does the chest hand move more than the rib hand?), breathing more than 15 times per minute, breathing frequently through the mouth, using your abdominal muscles to force the air out of the lungs so that another breath can be taken quickly, not pausing after the inhale or the exhale, very shallow breathing that is more like the flutter of a butterfly wingthan the slow rhythmical strokes of an eagle.
To begin correcting this breathing pattern, place the hands around the lower ribcage and direct a normal size breath of air deep into the pelvis, relaxing the abdominals and feeling the lower ribs expand all around slightly, and then allow the air to slowly come out all by itself. Notice if you are breathing quickly and actively slow it down by getting the air lower into the lungs. Try to slow down your life - stop rushing about, and slow down your thinking, planning, worrying, mental rehearsing. Physical, mental and emotional hurrying are linked to hurrying the breath.
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Farhi, Donna; The Breathing Book Henry Holt and Company Inc., New York, 1996.
Sherwood, Lauralee; Human Physiology, From Cells to Systems West Publishing Company, St. Paul MN, 2003.
Online at The Certified Capnobreath Trainer
Chaitow, L. Breathing pattern disorders, motor control and low back pain Journal of Osteopathic Medicine Volume 7, Issue 1, April 2004, Pages 33-40.
DeGuire, S. et al. Breathing retraining: a three-year follow-up study of treatment for hyperventilation syndrome and associated functional cardiac symptoms Biofeedback Self Regul Jun;21(2):191-8, 1996.
Gardner, WN The pathophysiology of hyperventilation disorders Chest 109; 516-534, 1996.