How to breathe : The Power of Breathing

By Chris Carlsen

The Power of Breathing

   “The lungs are the reservoirs of air, and the air is the lord of strength. Whoever speaks of strength must know air." JuiMeng-Shaolin Monk, 1692


“The lungs are the reservoirs of air, and the air is the lord of strength. Whoever speaks of strength must know air." JuiMeng-Shaolin Monk, 1692

The ability to breathe efficiently and have control over one’s breath can be the key to unlocking strength, having more energy and managing stress (relaxation). Breathing is the facilitator of all human movement. Yet most people breathe incorrectly, which hinders their performance and can even cause chronic muscle tension and pain. 

In proper breathing mechanics, one breathes into their belly; inhalation elevates the rib cage, while exhalation depresses the rib cage. This creates a rhythm and balance of the entire core musculature. Moreover, sound breathing activates these muscles and allows them to function properly. One popular mantra incites us to “think of [our] breath as a match and [our] abdominals as a burner.”Those who do not belly breathe, and rather breathe up into their chest, shoulders and neck, are chronically overusing the aforementioned muscles, causing them to become chronically fatigued due to lack of balance and tone throughout the body, which will render them stiff and weaker. At the body’s optimal resting length, the muscles are half flexed and half relaxed without losing energy and the inability to breathe diagrammatically will affect this balancing system.

I teach breathing with some external assistance by placing a cone on one’s belly. On the inhalation, the cone should rise like a loaf of bread. This is caused by the expansion of the rib cage and oblique’s, as well as activation of the posterior core, which creates a slight arch in the body. Inhalation also excites the sympathetic nervous system and prepares the body for being loaded.

During exhalation, the lower back should flatten out and the cone will appear to be pulled towards the floor. This exhale activates the rectus abdominus, internal obliques, transverse abdominals and internal intercostals, enabling the rib cage to depress and lock on to the pelvis (This relationship is what occurs during hip extension). When breathing for relaxation, it is important to let all the air out in a controlled manner. Doing so alters the autonomic nervous system balance so that parasympathetic activity can occur (deep relaxation).

As one masters their own breath, they will notice a rhythm (slight rock) in their pelvis. On the inhalation, the pelvis will gently tilt in an anterior manner (towards the ceiling) and then posteriorly tilt (towards the floor) during exhalation. Think of your pelvis as a bucket of water, it should oscillate back and forth without losing water. As in every exercise and movement, the breath initiates this rhythm, or the observation and execution of dynamic motion patterning, timing and variation.

The breath, as we see from its ability to move the pelvis, is responsible for lumbar pelvic rhythm and will put us in an optimal position to express our strength under load. From here, I use glute bridges andsomatic exercises to create more dynamic breathing that integrate the whole body’s rhythmic system. I personally like this way of teaching pelvic awareness as opposed to cueing one to arch and flatten during exercises, which can cause one to hang on their structure (ex. having someone stick their butt out to facilitate an arch, will put undue pressure on the lumbar spine), rather than having authentic movement of the pelvis generated by the breath.

There are a host of other benefits to deep breathing, which include:

1.       Diaphragmatic breathing is somatopsychic, which enhances the muscle-to-mind connection. The muscle action is the initiator of the central (mental) relaxation. Tight muscles and improper breathing mechanics can affect ones state of anxiousness.  

2.       Deep breathing has a major influence on heart rate and muscle tension due to the feedback mechanisms that link the respiratory and cardiac centers of the brain stem. Five minutes of deep breathing has been known to lower blood pressure by twenty points.

3.       Power breathing (forceful exhalation) is a co-contraction of all the trunk muscles in 360 degrees around the lumbar spine. This strengthens and protects the back (a perfectly executed swing is a great example of this).

4.       The more the body is in a parasympathetic state, the more it relaxes and the greater its capacity for stress (harder workouts). Recovery and relaxation promoted by breathing, then, are just as important as activity. Think of stress as a dial from one to ten.  We can have great capacity for a stressor when our dial is below five, but if the dial is always around 7 or 8, we are one step closer to physical and mental breakdown. 

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