Change your breathing, change your life

I don’t like scare tactics. I feel like, as a healthcare professional, I can get an important point across without making up a problem in someone’s mind. The problem is, as humans, we respond to stories above everything else. And all stories need conflict. 

You know that breathing is important. In fact we can’t live very long without it. But did you know that there are “optimal” ways to breathe? Or that ideally you should be able to control the way you breathe? What about that breathing can be one of the best postural strategies we have as humans?

If you’ve ever been diagnosed as needing “core stability” to manage low back or neck pain, that could’ve been an oversimplified way of saying that your breathing is inefficient and you need to change it. Or stated better, improving your breathing is one way you can make positive changes in your life.

What are the possible problems?

There are many ways to breathe. None of them are “right” or “wrong” per se. But there are ways to breathe that can be more preservative or more effective than others. There are ways of breathing that, when done unconsciously and persistently, can perpetuate many different painful symptoms. 

Pain, tightness, and restriction in the neck, upper back, and shoulders, headaches, even low back or hip pain, can all be symptoms of inefficient breathing patterns. For that matter, breathing could be implicated in any painful condition, which is why we test it in our office to rule it in por out. Admittedly though, it is more of a leap the further you get from your torso.

What are the solutions?

Control of the breath can solve a multitude of issues. When we breathe efficiently, we are coordinating our body’s foundational movements in an effective way. We are calming ourselves down, bringing ourselves away from fight-or-flight. We are relaxing muscles, creating space and movement in joints, expelling stale air and taking in new air. We are stabilizing our core, allowing for better movement from within. We are providing enough oxygen to nourish our cells. We are facilitating the death of old cells and growth of new ones.

If pain or discomfort has been keeping you from the things you love, now is the time to act.
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How do we know what to change?

As mentioned above, inefficient breathing can contribute to a whole host of problems. Neck, shoulder, and upper back pain; poor sleep, inefficient processing of nutrients, low back pain. The List goes on.

To me, clinically, this makes it the lowest hanging fruit. It’s pretty easy to screen for issues, it’s pretty simple to change the habits that are contributing to problems (not easy, but simple). This could potentially take care of a lot of problems, then anything left can be focused on with greater specificity. 

There are a few different screens that we can use to see if we need to change anything.

Breathing Self-Assessments

BOLT Test

The Body Oxygen Level Test is a good way to determine how effectively you breathe currently. It has been used in one way or another for four decades, and has recently been popularized by the Oxygen Advantage system. You’ll need a timer for this test.
Breathe in through your nose, then allow the breath out. Make sure it’s a normal breath, otherwise this test is just not as accurate.
Pinch your nostrils so you don’t let any air in.
Start the timer, and hold your breath until you feel your first definite urge to breathe. This could feel like you need to swallow. 
Stop the timer at this point, and take a normal breath in. This should be a calm breath.
Resume normal breathing.
This assessment is not a measurement of how long you can hold your breath. It is a screen of how your body reacts without oxygen for a period of time. If you gasp and have to breathe really hard to get back to normal, you’ve pushed it too hard and it’s not an accurate result.

Vital Lung Capacity (VLC)

This is a percentage based on your chest expansion after exhalation and inhalation. It is a good measure of the mobility of your chest wall. It’s used as a baseline in “Breathe,” by Dr. Belisa Vranich.
Wrap a soft tape measure around your chest, an inch below your sternum. Exhale forcefully and completely, and take the measurement.
Inhale normally and take that measurement.
Subtract the exhale measurement from the inhale measurement, then divide that result by the exhale number. The result is your VLC in a percentage.

Other Considerations

Less measurable things you could consider are how your breathing feels. Do you feel like you are able to take in a full, deep, breath? Do you feel like you sigh, yawn, or gasp for air frequently? What shape does your body take when you breathe normally? Does your chest rise, your low back and sides expand? Probably most importantly, can you control the way you breathe?

Making the change

Breathing changes happen through awareness and practice. We can think about the way we breathe. We can be aware of the way we breathe. We can pay attention to the way our body feels when we are breathing a certain way. 

Breathe Light to Breathe Right

This is the primary technique taught in the Oxygen Advantage system by Patrick McKeown. He contends that deep, audible breaths are inefficient and thus unhealthy, and nasal breathing is what we should always be doing unless we are fully exerting ourselves. 

It’s still abdominal breathing, using the diaphragm, but the difference is in the depth of the breath. He contends that we shouldn’t be hearing our breath, and it shouldn’t be that visible (no heaving chest or expanding belly).
Sit up straight, allow your shoulders to relax, and pack your chin into your neck. 
Place one hand on your chest and another just above your navel.
Start by feeling your abdomen moving against your hand lightly, then start to exert pressure gently against your chest and your abdomen. 
Breathe into that resistance, attempting to make the size of each breath smaller. Take in less air than you would like to. Make each breath smaller or lighter than the previous one. Work this way until you experience a tolerable hunger for air. 
Make sure your exhalation is relaxed the whole time, using the elasticity of the lungs to let the air out.
The purpose of this exercise is to increase the body’s capacity to manage carbon dioxide. This will reduce the effects of breathing too heavily, and thus getting too out of breath during increased exertion. 

One way to improve your ability to use this technique during exertion would be to start walking, jogging, and then lightly running, while focusing on light nasal breathing. Only go as fast as you can while controlling your light breathing through the nose.

Rock and Roll Breath

This technique is covered in the book Breathe by Dr. Belisa Vranich. It’s a simple technique used to create awareness of the body’s movement during inhalation and exhalation. What shapes does your body get into when you breathe. What sounds does it make? 
Sit on the edge of a chair, feet flat on the floor. Don’t lean against the back of the chair. Make sure you have an engaged posture, so you’re not slumping.
As you inhale, lean slightly forward. You’re relaxing your belly into your inner thighs, or putting it on your lap. 
As you exhale, lean back and slightly curl over. It should feel like you’re engaging your abs. Make sure that you stay engaged and upright, don’t lean against the back of the chair, but it’s similar to slouching into a couch.
Breathe calmly in and out through your nose for 20-30 reps.
Feel the movement in your abdomen and your spine, and allow yourself to feel your pelvis get involved in the activity. Make sure that you don’t hold your breath between inhale and exhale.

Breathing as low-hanging fruit

There are a few things that we find in the clinic that can really make a big difference in the way we live. Foot care, core stability, and breathing, are three of our favorites. They are issues that aren’t always a huge problem, but the solutions can make a difference either way. 

Intentional breathing can help us mentally, physically, and emotionally. It can keep us present, and it can calm us down. It can strengthen our core and coordinate our movements. Since oxygen is fuel for our cells, increasing the efficiency of collecting it will only help our bodies to function more efficiently.

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