Breathing is a bit of a ‘buzz’ topic at the moment, don’t you think?

But is there is a right way to breathe and wrong way?

Are we ‘supposed’ to breathe in and out through our nose or mouth? Into our belly? What about alternate nostrils; are we supposed to be doing that too?

In short, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to breathe; there are just different ways to breathe. And sometimes, there is a more efficient way to breathe for the task at hand.  When we master that, it can make all the difference.

So, I have put together 5 different breathing techniques that are particularly useful to the women I treat, including the what, how and when they can be used to your advantage!

1. Nasal breathing

What is it:

Nasal breathing is exactly as it sounds – breathing in and out through the nose. It is how we breathe when we are born and is the most natural pattern for our bodies. For varying reasons, some of us can move away from this natural pattern and become ‘mouth’ breathers; yes you might still be getting air in, but it’s not as efficient and not as good for our health.

Why use it?

Breathing in and out through the nose helps us to take fuller, deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body.

It also offers lots of health benefits as it:

  • helps to filter out dust and allergens, preventing them from entering our lungs
  • warms and humidifies the air, making it easier for our lungs to use
  • boosts our oxygen uptake
  • reduces our heart rate and breathing rate

How & When to use it:

Quite simply, in order to nasal breathe you just need to keep your mouth shut!

You should try to breathe this way most of the time. It is only really necessary to breathe through your mouth when you have nasal congestion or when you are overexerting yourself and can’t get enough air in through nasal breathing alone (although this can be improved with practice!)

As always, awareness is key. So start by bringing your attention to what you do naturally and identify whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth.

Next try keeping your mouth closed whenever you notice it open through the day and keep the air flowing gently and quietly in and out through the nose.

As you get more comfortable, you can challenge yourself to use nasal breathing during exercise. Try to keep your mouth shut for as much of the time as possible. If it becomes too difficult, try lowering the intensity of what you are doing before taking big breaths in through your mouth (i.e adjust the demand on your breath rather than your technique).

2. Relaxed/diaphragmatic/belly breathing

What is it:

Diaphragmatic breathing involves using the diaphragm (the main breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen) rather than the chest and accessory muscles around the neck to breathe.

Diaphragmatic breathing is facilitated by nose breathing, so the two go hand in hand.

Why use it?

As with nose breathing, this is our most natural breathing pattern. However periods of high stress, some health conditions and even pregnancy can mess with this natural pattern and cause us to lose the skill.

When we use this pattern, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which is associated with calming the body and mind. When we practise it regularly, it can become more automatic again so we don’t have to think about it as much!

How & When to use it:

You should be breathing this way most of the time, especially when you’re in a relaxed state. But it can be particularly useful to practise this technique when you’re feeling stressed or anxious to help ‘calm the farm’. It is always worth practising this regularly when you are relaxed as well (eg. lying in bed at the end of a day), so that you can call on it more easily during those periods of stress.

To help with this technique, you can sit/stand/lie comfortably. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly and as you breathe in and out through your nose, you can aim to move your belly more than your chest. You can also think about your lower ribcage expanding in all directions (360º) so the movement is not all in the front of belly.

Breathing should be quiet and regular with a long, relaxed exhale.

3. ‘Core’ breathing – co-ordination of breathing with deep muscle activation

What is it:

Core breathing involves the awareness and co-ordination of your diaphragm (which forms the top part of your ‘core cylinder’) with your other core muscles like your pelvic floor, transversus abdominis (deep abs) and your multifidis (little back stability muscles).

Why use it?

This technique allows for all of the components of our core cylinder to work together to manage the pressure inside our abdomen (keeping it relatively even) and to help prepare your central system to take load. This can help you to generate more strength and power in all types of exercises, even leg and arm work but it can also help with relaxing and lengthening your pelvic floor if needed as well (especially helpful for those with an overactive pelvic floor).

How & When to use it:

You can practise this for a few minutes before doing any strength exercise, or you can build it into each exercise.

As you breathe in, you can visualise your diaphragm moving down towards your abdomen, and your belly filling, ribs expanding and pelvic floor lengthening/stretching. As you exhale you can practise ‘closing’ your ribs back down, working with the natural recoil of your pelvic floor by drawing up and in through your deep abs and pelvic floor on exhale.

For exercises that involve a neutral spine (like planks and pushups), you can practise inhaling with the diaphragm, expanding the ribs but maintaining some tension in your ‘core’ muscles, then exhaling as you allow your ribs to close and engaging your deep muscles (especially pelvic floor and abdominals).

4. ‘Blow before you go’ *

What is it:

I often get a giggle from clients when I say this one! This technique builds on your core breathing technique and involves ’blowing off’ some air or exhaling just before and during exertion to trigger a reflexive pelvic floor contraction.

Why use it?

This technique helps by using your body’s automatic reflex to give you a bit more stability and to prepare your body for load. When you practise it regularly it becomes more automatic which helps to protect your pelvic floor and reduce risk of prolapse, stress incontinence and pain.

How & When to use it:

Use this technique whenever you are doing something that requires a bit of effort like lifting / pushing / pulling something heavy, or even something awkward like getting a toddler out of their carseat.

I often start my new mums using this technique when they are learning to load their abdominals again.

I also encourage my clients who are in acute pain to ‘blow before you go’ i.e before they are about to do a movement that they know might cause pain (like moving from sitting to standing in someone with a very sore back).

To do this technique, you can take a breath in through the nose to prepare, then start an exhale (preferably through pursed lips) before you do the activity, and continue the exhale through the movement / effort.

*This term was coined by the wonderful and very clever Julie Wiebe (juliewiebe.com)

5. Brace & bulge

What is it:

This technique uses the inhale to create an outward force with the diaphragm and a ‘brace’ of this position to generate pressure in the abdomen without pushing down on the pelvic floor

 

Why use it?

This technique helps to create a relaxation of your voluntary muscles (like your pelvic floor and external anal sphincter), so is very helpful in ‘pushing things out’ (eg baby or bowel motion) without the risk of damage that can come from ‘bearing down’.

How & When to use it:

This technique can be used whenever you are emptying your bowels, but is especially helpful when you may be constipated. (side bar – It is always best to combine this with a good bowel emptying position i.e feet on stool, leaning forward with chest open).

This is also a fantastic technique to use when birthing a baby vaginally because it helps to relax the pelvic floor and facilitate downward movement without ‘bearing down’. FYI – This often clicks for women much more easily if they have been practising this technique already when emptying their bowels, so that’s a great place to start

To do this technique, you start by breathing in deeply so that your tummy and ribcage expand outwards. Then as you exhale, you can ‘widen’ at the waist (this is the ‘brace’ bit) and then allow your lower tummy to push out (this is the ‘bulge’ bit). Some women find saying ‘mmmm’ for the brace and ‘oooo’ for the bulge helpful!

There you have it – 5 different breathing techniques – most connected or overlapping in some way but all a little different! I hope you’ve found this helpful.

If you’re struggling to master one or all of these techniques, please get in touch! Physiotherapist are experts in assessing and teaching movement, so this is our jam.