Proper breathing techniques that can rejuvenate your whole body

Breathe in, breathe out. It seems so simple to do and yet very few of us breathe in a way that invigorates, energises and strengthens our bodies. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 7.5 million Australians reported having a chronic respiratory condition in 2020/2021. Of those, 5.1 million people reported suffering from hay fever and 2.7 million from asthma. Now add to this, the 5 per cent of Australians who suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea and that is a lot of people who have trouble breathing well.

And that is just the people who have a diagnosable respiratory condition that affects how they breathe. There are a lot more people who do not breathe well due to stress, heart problems, musculoskeletal conditions, and poor physical fitness.

Fast shallow breathing is common in people who suffer from chronically high levels of stress and those with chronic pain. A feeling of being short of breath is frequently reported by people who have poor cardiovascular health and may be due to their heart having trouble pumping oxygenated blood around their body.

A stiff thoracic spine might make it hard for people to expand their ribs to breathe well and being unfit speaks for itself. Walking up a flight of stairs or climbing a steep hill uses more oxygen than sitting still and often leaves people feeling winded or puffy if they don’t breathe well.

How breathing affects your whole body

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once said, ‘breathing control gives man strength, vitality, inspiration, and magic powers’ and I couldn’t agree more. Breathing well impacts on your whole body.

It improves your heart and lung function, it affects your nerves and your gut health and your muscle capacity. It improves your mental state, strengthens your sleep quality, boosts your memory, and promotes concentration. And unsurprisingly, it increases your energy levels and verve. 

Here’s what happens when you breathe well:

  • your body is supplied with vital oxygen
  • you move better
  • your immune system gets a boost
  • you sleep more deeply and restfully
  • cortisol levels associated with stress decrease
  • brain fog clears and mental clarity improves
  • pain may also improve.

Proper breathing techniques

So, what are the most important things you need to know so you can start breathing well? 

Regardless of why your breathing is not great – whether you have asthma, hay fever, or poor breathing due to high levels of stress, there are a few simple things you can do to improve your breathing and reap the benefits.

First, you need to breathe with your diaphragm.

Second, you need to breathe through your nose.

And finally, you need to slow it down.

Patrick McKeown, author and international expert on breathing and sleep says: “Of every breath that you take, there is immense benefit to using your nose and slowing your breath.” He notes that when awake, we are most often upright – either sitting, standing, or moving. Due to the effect of gravity, a large concentration of blood is in the bottom of our lungs.

When we breathe though our mouths, we ventilate the upper areas of the lungs, which is very inefficient. Conversely, when we breathe through our noses and use our diaphragm, we ventilate the lower parts of our lungs where the blood is. This is one of the ways that we can improve oxygen uptake in the lungs. 

Diaphragmatic breathing

Take a moment to sit down. Place one hand on the top of your chest and one hand low on your ribcage. Close your eyes, breathe, and see if you can notice where the air is going. If you feel your top hand moving, your shoulders rising slightly or you can feel tension in your neck, then you are breathing into the top of your chest. If you can feel your bottom hand moving, your stomach expanding very slightly or the base of your ribcage expanding then you are breathing low in your ribcage.

This low breath will encourage your diaphragm to work properly. As you breathe in, your low ribcage should expand (like an opening umbrella) and your diaphragm should lower allowing air to enter your lungs. In fact, breathing in should be passive – that means if you breathe out well, the air should automatically flow into your lungs when you inhale.

To breathe into your diaphragm, you want to sit or lie down with your hands in the same position as before – one hand on the top of your chest and one hand on your lower ribcage or belly. As you breathe in slowly you should notice your lower ribs expand or your belly rise ever so slightly. Don’t force your belly to expand, it should be a soft and gentle expansion.

Nose breathing

Breathing in through your nose is easy for some of us and much harder for others. Try gently resting your lips closed and breathing through your nose. If you have hay fever, a deviated septum or a broken nose, this might be quite hard for you so just do your best. It is okay if you have to open your lips slightly and let some air in through your mouth.

Some people like to use alternate nostril breathing. Close one nostril with your thumb and breathe in and out through one nostril then swap by blocking the other nostril and breathing in and out again.

This might help to teach you to breathe through your nose. You might be surprised just how quickly you can learn to breathe through your nose with some practice.

Slow breathing

And now to slow it down. There are many techniques for slowing your breath, but the easiest technique is to breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of six. Making sure your out breath is longer than your in breath will slow your breathing and encourage your rest and relaxation nervous system to boot up. This in turn increases your breathing efficiency and makes it easier to breathe slowly.

If you sit or lie quietly for five minutes and practise, you will notice that the slow long out breath becomes easier with each breath that you take. You might notice your heart rate slowing, you might notice aches and pains easing and you might notice nerve pain settling. You might even notice a sense of calm settling in your body and your mind.

Start by practising this slow, nose breathing when at rest and then try to use your nose breathing when you are moving. Breathe through your nose for as long as possible to breathe efficiently and strengthen your diaphragm muscle. This will feel challenging at first, but it will help to maximise oxygen delivery throughout your body and before you know it, you will be noticing the benefits of breathing well. 

And the best part is that no equipment is required, the exercises are simple to learn, and you can practise them wherever and whenever you want. However, if you prefer a little guidance you might like to try one of these apps to get you started: Insight timer, universal pranayama breathing, headspace, or Mylife.

A word of caution

As always, if you have a diagnosed respiratory condition, speak with your doctor before starting a new program to help manage your breathing concerns. If you think you might suffer from sleep apnoea, you should have an assessment (this can be done at home) and start using a CPAP machine if prescribed. Learning to breathe well in these instances should be an adjunct to your current management.

Kate Roberts is an experienced physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She has a passion for helping older Australians manage their aches and pains. She is particularly interested in helping people to stay active and strong. When not working, she is kept busy with her three children, her two dogs and her secret dedication to pointing her toes and leaping in her regular ballet class.

Do you practise proper breathing techniques? Share your thoughts – and tips – in the comments section below.

Also read: How meditating just 10 minutes a day can change you

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