Breathe in... breathe out...
We start life with the first breath we take after being born. From then on, breathing is our constant companion, day in, day out, and yet in our daily lives we are barely aware of it. Or do you remember how you breathed today? Possibly you’re only now paying attention to your breathing as you read these lines.
How does it feel? Regular? Shallow? Intense? Calm? What is the rhythm of your breath like? What do your ribcage and belly do when you breathe? Take a moment and feel it.
Your breathing is incredibly reliable. It supports you rhythmically and autonomously in all life circumstances, both when you’re active and when you’re resting and relaxing. It’s always there and adjusts to every circumstance, in the best possible way, to support your wellbeing and ensure that you’re well.
“Without breathing, nothing can happen.
Because breath means life.”
That’s exactly why we are turning our attention to breathing here.
This article was co-written with Bettina Mosel, qualified respiratory therapist and respiration teacher in Baar. Many thanks to Ms Mosel for her expert knowledge, advice and support.
The history of knowledge about breathing
Knowledge about breathing functions and how breathing works, developed over 4000 years, is one of the oldest accomplishments of human culture and medicine.
Ancient Greece created pneumatic schools, based on the movement and breathing schools of east Asian culture such as yoga, zen practices, qi gong or tai-chi. These schools aimed to promote spiritual and personal maturity and promoted people’s religious development.
Since the 19th century, the relationship between body and soul has been increasingly under discussion in respiratory therapy and the breath has been recognised as an autonomous mental and spiritual phenomenon.
The doctor Johannes Ludwig Schmidt has for decades studied the practical use of respiratory science and respiratory therapy, which stimulate and unleash natural human healing powers. He emphasises the self-help aspect inherent in respiratory medicine.
Breath embraces all of humanity, as breathing is a vital basic function associated with all processes in the body. Everyday behaviour, thoughts, feelings and physical changes affect “natural and automatic” breathing. They can stimulate the breath, deepen it or partially restrict it. Sayings like “taking the breath away” or “running out of puff” make this connection clear. The link between stimulus and reaction is something we can take advantage of, by consciously regulating our bodies and minds with breathing. Special breathing exercises aren’t necessary for this. Sometimes breathing deeply is all you need to do. Like a sigh – that is, breathing out long and deep – breathing in long and deep also has a positive effect on our mental state. They both specifically modulate our bodies before they become tense to make them more relaxed. So the old “take deep breaths” actually has something in it! :-)
We humans and our bodies are geared towards staying in or restoring dynamic balance when faced with changing internal and external influences. A simple example of this is the breath becoming more rapid when you take exercise.
Why do we breathe more rapidly when we do sport?
When we do sport, our muscles are working at full blast, which is why the heart and lungs are pushing our pulse rate and respiratory frequency to high levels. If we aren’t making a physical effort, we breathe approximately 0.5 to 0.7 litres of air in and out with each breath. This means that the lungs aren’t using their full volume. If we are physically active or doing sport, the volume per breath can rise to up to 2.5 litres of air, and endurance athletes can even reach over 4 litres per breath.
In order to exchange even more oxygen for carbon dioxide (the waste product of breathing), it’s not just the respiratory volume that rises, but also the frequency. While a healthy adult takes 12 to 15 breaths per minute at rest (respiratory minute volume 6 to 8 litres per minute), our bodies push respiratory frequency up to 40 to 50 breaths per minute to adjust to sport in the best way (respiratory minute volume up to 120 litres per minute). Impressive, isn’t it?
Do you know how much air you breathe in on average?
- Per breath: 0.6 litres (a little bit more than a 500ml bottle of water)
- Per day: 15,000 litres (approximately 100 filled bathtubs)
- In your life: 300 million litres (approx. 2 million filled bathtubs)
The influence of respiratory motion
While breathing supplies all the body’s organs with sufficient oxygen and energy, individual organs, such as the heart and digestive tract, are specifically activated by respiratory motion, either spatially or in their structure. As far as the heart is concerned, this means that you can regulate your heart rate by breathing. You are surely aware of situations that make you anxious and send your pulse sky high. Maybe you experience this before exams, or when you have to give a presentation. In such situations, you can consciously slow your heartbeat by regulating your breath. To do this, breathe regularly, slowly and deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pay conscious attention to your breathing. Breathe in deeply into your stomach and then out again slowly. Put one or both hands on your belly at navel height and feel how your belly swells outwards as you breathe in and flattens again when you breathe out. Breathe deeply in and out approximately 10 times. As you do, feel your heartbeat calming down and notice how you gradually start to feel more relaxed. After this simple exercise, you are ready to go into your exam or give your presentation with a clear head. Of course, you can also use this technique in many other situations that give you a queasy feeling in your stomach.
It works best when you are already used to doing breathing exercises and your body is used to responding to them.
So there are complex interactions between our breath, bodily functions, thoughts and feelings. Every physical, mental and spiritual impulse has a direct effect on how you breathe.
A balanced respiratory rhythm supports the vegetative nervous system and the psychosomatic equilibrium can be restored. However, this needs the diaphragm to survive, and now we’re going to shine a light on that too.
The most important respiratory muscle – the diaphragm
The diaphragm is our most important respiratory muscle. It’s shaped like a double dome and divides the torso into the thoracic and abdominal cavities. It is important that the diaphragm can move as freely as possible and oscillate unimpeded, to guarantee the body’s oxygen supply.
When you breathe in, oxygen-rich air flows into both lung lobes, and when you breathe out, the used air leaves your body again. So that this can happen, the diaphragm moves down when you breathe in, towards the abdominal cavity. As a result, the lung lobes move downwards too, so the air can flow in. When you breathe out, the diaphragm moves upwards towards the thoracic cavity and the used air escapes. If you put your hands on your belly, you can feel this three-dimensional movement.
The diaphragm is not a stand-alone muscle, but is connected to the connective tissue that surrounds the thoracic and abdominal organs, among other things. This means that the diaphragm massages the heart and digestive organs as it moves. So the better the diaphragm can move, the better the supply to these organs and the better you feel.
If the diaphragm is solid and immobile, this can result in tension, anxiety and tightness. Conversely, when you are stressed, your breathing is shallow, or you are suffering from a motor system condition, the diaphragm can tense up and no longer work effectively.
There are many ways to keep this important muscle healthy:
A hearty laugh, for example, is a great exercise for keeping your diaphragm healthy, because when you laugh, the ribcage vibrates and this in turn agitates and loosens the muscle.
You can also activate your diaphragm by holding your teeth lightly together, pursing your lips and making a “sh-sh-sh...” sound – like the sound of a saw. You will hear a “sh” sound both when you breathe in and when you breathe out, as if you were saying “sh – ape”. If you put your hands under the ribs when you say this, it’s very easy to understand respiratory motion. Finally, feel carefully and discover how your breathing reveals itself.
The gentle rhythmic movement that it causes loosens the muscles and allows the diaphragm to move freely.
(You can also activate the diaphragm by saying “shshshshsh”, first silently, then slowly but becoming faster, through clenched teeth, like the sound of a saw.)
Something else that enables the diaphragm to move freely is moving your torso slowly right and left with an almost silent “Huuuuuh” sound. Finally, pay close attention to what you notice in your diaphragm area and observe which sensations set in.
The “sower” exercise has a similar effect. Stand still but swing your arms rapidly from right to left and back again. Your torso, spine and head will move too. Your ankles, knees and shoulders should remain soft and flexible. Finish the exercise at your own discretion and feel to see if there is any change in your breathing.
If you are interested in other breathing exercises, our post “Breathing techniques: conscious breathing for greater calm and tranquillity in your daily routine” could help you.
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Moor, C. (2018). Wie funktioniert die Atmung. Blog CSS Versicherung. Available on: https://www.css.ch/de/privatkunden/meine-gesundheit/koerper/wunderwerk-koerper/wie-funktioniert-atmung.html