It may be hard to believe, but 9 out of 10 adults breathe incorrectly, thereby impairing their health and exacerbating anxiety and depression. Fortunately, learning to breathe correctly is not a complicated affair.
In this interview, Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of “Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health,” shares a breathing program she developed that can help improve your physical and mental health in a short amount of time.
Psychologists do not typically focus on breathing. As is often the case with health pioneers, it was her personal health problems that led Vranich onto this path.
“What happened is that one year in New York, I woke up and had this dull throbbing pain in my jaw. I went to the dentist and found out I was not only grinding my teeth, I was pulverizing them because of stress …
Being someone who sort of thrived on stress, I reached a point where it wasn’t working for me anymore … [F]inding out I had to pay thousands of dollars to get teeth replaced and fixed was my [aha] moment.
Most people take a yoga class or have a stiff drink. I decided for the yoga class. I loved the breathing we did in yoga … When I left yoga, I tried to find other classes that had to do with breathing. Most of them were vague, as far as their scientific explanations of what was going on, although they were lovely …
[C]oming from a science background, I really wanted to know why things were happening … Long story short, I found all types of breathing in sports, martial arts, birthing, singing [and] free diving. I put all those practical elements together and came up with the breathing class I give now.
I went back to my own patients [who] had anxiety and depression, and it worked really well with them … They would spend chunks of the session really wanting to do breath work. That’s how the transition happened.”
Proper Breathing Is a Cornerstone of Good Health
In her book, “Breathe,” Vranich accurately points out that breathing is a cornerstone of good health, and that changing the way you breathe can have an enormous impact, improving your sleep, cognition, eating habits, resilience to stress and more.
It can even lower your inflammation level, improve gastrointestinal (GI) function, increase longevity and reduce pain. When you’re in pain, you tense up, which in turn affects your breathing, making it shallower. This actually makes the pain feel worse, and can lead to a vicious circle where the pain becomes constant.
When it comes to breathing style, there are two basic types: vertical and horizontal breathing. Most people breathe vertically. This type of breathing makes you feel a bit taller on the in-breath, as it raises your chest and shoulders.
“Unfortunately, it’s anatomically incongruous,” Vranich says. “Your neck and shoulders were never meant to be breathing muscles. You’re not using the best part of your lungs. You’re actually telling your nervous system that you are in a stressed-out state.
If you’re not already in a stressed-out state, it’s going to make you more stressed … Horizontally is the way you see all animals on the planet breathe. They breathe and widen where the biggest part of their lungs are …
If you ask a 5-year old to take a breath, they just widen like a little puffing fish … It’s their deep breath. It’s perfect. You take a 10-year-old and ask them to take a deep breath and all of a sudden, it’s completely changed.
The 10-year-old will raise their shoulders, puff up their little chests and take this vertical, apical breath. If it doesn’t happen by age 10, definitely by age 15 … What they’re doing is mimicking their parents and what they see around them …”
How to Address Dysfunctional Breathing
The origins of dysfunctional breathing can also be traced back to excessive sitting. The average American sits 13 to 16 hours a day, which puts your body into an unnatural posture. According to Vranich, your posture affects as much as 30 percent of your breathing.
You may also have learned improper breathing through sports. Constrictive clothing such as tight waist bands, compression garments and bra straps add to the problem. Sucking in your gut also worsens the situation.
“Even if you’re not pulling in your gut because you think it makes you look thinner, you’re bracing because of anxiety. Think about it. That’s actually a posture that most of us have very often,” Vranich says. “It’s this braced middle … because it makes us feel better.
We feel like we’re ready to run or to strike. The problem with all of those things is that it takes the breath and it pushes it up, [turning it into] a vertical breath …
Luckily, dismantling it is fairly easy because somewhere in your body, you remember having breathed horizontally … [and since] it does make you feel better [when breathing horizontally], you start doing it.”
The book, “Breathe,” is a useful resource that provides a variety of different exercises and strategies to address this dysfunctional breathing. One such strategy Vranich calls “rock and roll.” You can do it either standing or sitting.
Begin by relaxing and unbracing your midsection. Take a deep breath in and actually feel the middle of your body get wider. Let your belly go. On the exhale, roll backward, tipping your hips underneath you while pressing your fingers gently into your belly, giving it a little squeeze.
These movements are exaggerated because learning a new mechanical movement is easier if you start by exaggerating it. Eventually, this will teach your body to use the diaphragm to breathe. So, on the inhale, let your belly go. On the exhale, roll back and squeeze.
“This is the most important breath,” Vranich says. “If you do anything at all, this is the most wonderful one … You want to get yourself trained to breathe that way all the time.”
Remember to Engage Your Diaphragm When Breathing
One of the key things to remember is to work with and engage your diaphragm when breathing, as this will allow you to change your breathing more easily, and make the change permanent. This is what the “rock and roll” breathing exercise teaches you.
“[While] the Buteyko [Breathing technique] focuses on your carbon dioxide levels, breathing through your nose, and posits that most people over-breathe … I focus on style of breathing.
I really look to see where you’re breathing from, because in my experience that has been what really resonates with people and what creates the most change,” Vranich says. “Although I touch on Buteyko Breathing in my book, I try to bring in breathing exercises from as many different places as possible, because I want there to be information that resonates with a really diverse group of people.
I talk about breathing that happens in singing … in martial arts … In “Breathe,” I bring in everything I possibly can, as far as breathing, to really give you a choice to see which of these different exercises works for you. But my main gift, I’d like to think, is that I look at where you’re breathing from.”
You might know that muscles will atrophy from lack of use. If you’ve been breathing improperly for several decades, it may take some time to retrain your breathing muscles before you can breathe optimally. Even athletes can have weak breathing muscles, because in order to be strong, they have to be worked out separately. It doesn’t happen automatically simply because you’re breathing heavily, and it has nothing to do with lung capacity. Your breathing muscles include your:
- Intercostals: Muscles that run between your ribs, allowing your chest wall to move
- Diaphragm: That thin sheet of muscle that extends across your thoracic cavity below your heart and lungs, above your digestive system
- Obliques: The largest, outermost muscles of the lateral, anterior abdomen that give you that six-pack look
- Pelvic floor
How to Strengthen Your Breathing Muscles
Working those muscles and really engaging them when breathing will have a dramatic effect on your ability to breathe well. Your inhale is governed by your diaphragm, while the exhale is primarily governed by your intercostals and obliques. Oftentimes, feeling short of breath is due to insufficient exhalation leaving excess residual air in your lungs. With age, your intercostals and obliques can weaken, thereby weakening your ability to exhale fully.
“When I teach, I teach the extremes so that you understand the mechanics. I make that exhale a squeeze. When you think about exhaling, most people think, ‘Inhale, exhale, let go,’ and that really messes us up. That idea of ‘exhale, let go’ makes you relax and flop down when you actually want to be narrowing your body on the exhale …
If you can think about your belly button getting closer to your spine and even your ribs coming together, that’s a really good exhale, which will obviously make your next inhale much better,” Vranich explains.
While about 50 percent of people can change their breathing for the better simply by reading the book or taking a single-session breathing class, to really change your breathing for life, most people need to commit to doing the exercises several times a day for one to three weeks.
The Importance of Stretching
Stretching helps improve your range of motion and flexibility, and proper breathing is an important aspect of effective stretching as well. Conversely, stretching can also improve your breathing. Vranich explains:
“Since your intercostals are two layers of muscle on the inside of your ribs, the best way you can stretch them is by inhaling and then stretching … [This opens] up the spaces between your ribs … Add air to the ribcage, on the inside, and then stretch. Add a little bit more. It’s called air packing — air packing comes from free diving — then stretch a little bit deeper. You can actually focus on the side that’s collapsing and give that a little crunch …
Now, I love spinal twists. If you don’t have any injuries, if you’ve been OK’d for doing spinal twists, doing spinal twists on the exhale will definitely get you deeper into the twist using the breath … Whatever chair you’re on, taking the back of your seat … and pulling yourself around on the exhale will get you deeper into the twist.”