You already know that breathing is an important part of living. If not, welcome to being alive. It’s a good place to be.
I’m sure I also don’t need to tell you how breathing becomes especially important when you combine living with physical activity. Moreover, breathing while dancing is important for balance, stamina, strength, power, relaxation and the flowing of all of those things together.
A dancer I’m working with asked me if I could teach her how to breathe this summer.
As I’ve mentioned before HERE (check that article out when you’re done with this one, I don’t want you to get an information overload), dancers are notorious for holding their breath while performing challenging movements, which makes those same movements all the more challenging. Paradoxical, but for many dancers, breath holding is a way of finding strength.
So I found myself asking, “how do you teach someone how to breathe?”
For me, the logical first step was to bring awareness to breath holding patterns. Simple. “Oh look, you’re not breathing.” Repeat. A lot.
After that, I’m not aware of a particular methodology on how to train a chronic breath holder to breathe optimally (please enlighten me if you know a better way!). I mean, in theory you shouldn’t have to train yourself to do something so fundamental.
But then again, I never learned to clean. Or fold/hang up clothes. Seriously. If my floor has blank space to walk on, that’s a good day.
Why you probably need to re-train yourself to breathe
Did anyone ever teach you “proper technique” when you first started breathing?
Think of breathing as any other “gym exercise”, like a bicep curl. If you’ve ever had a trainer, I’m sure they taught you proper bicep-curl form. I hope. You know, you start by first strapping the weights to your wrists. Then you bend your knees and swing the weight while quickly jerking your head forward and leaning your torso back far enough to counterbalance the weight. And don’t forget to grunt reallllyyy loud because it will make you stronger.
Think of each breath as a rep performed by the prime-mover, your diaphragm. A rep of a bicep curl contracts the bicep concentrically, and likewise, a breathing rep (breath) concentrically contracts the diaphragm.
In a concentric bicep contraction, the tricep contracts eccentrically, and when the diaphragm contracts concentrically, the abdominal muscles eccentrically contract. These muscle actions can be (and thus should be) trained to work more efficiently.
Unlike the bicep curl in the above example, the breath is a muscle action much more important for keeping us alive. You can live without bending your arms, but you can’t live without breathing.
So that’s why breathing patterns are actually kind of important to train. Just like any other exercise, you want to use good technique You wouldn’t want to deadlift with crappy form unless you really enjoy disk herniations, and so too, you want to use “proper form” when you breath.
The stakes of using improper breathing form, though lower acutely, are higher when thinking long term.
How do many non-acute injuries (think chronic low back pain) come about? Prolonged poor positioning, with low load, high volume (lots of reps) exercise.
What are some examples of low load, high volume, repetitive movements that can become injurious when done with poor alignment over a long period of time?
- BREATHING <—–Let’s talk more about that one
How many people have perfect posture? Maybe Tony Gentilcore, and that’s pretty much it. Seriously, that guy has the best posture I’ve ever seen. But that’s just an intro to why I think breathing is an important thing to train, and also why I think posture is so important.
Bad posture turns anything normally fine into something not at all fine.
So rule number one- before you try to address your breathing, address your posture. This will fix a lot of breathing issues without you even having to think specifically about breathing differently. But that’s a topic for a WHOLE OTHER article.
So let’s move on.
The amount of breathing you currently do on a daily basis is probably just enough to keep you alive. And piggy-backing on what we were just talking about, it’s probably done in crappy alignment, which means your diaphragm might not be doing it’s share of the work, but rather relying on a something else (an antagonist/synergist) compensating.
The way I see it, there are 4 major ways to screw up your breathing. Or, if you want to keep things positive…
4 ways to train your breathing…
for dancing, and other fun activities, and not for being merely sufficient to keep you alive. There’s a nice thought, eh?
1) Improve alignment. This is a big topic that we already mentioned. One that, if you’re as obsessed with as I am, you will be working to “perfect” for the rest of your life. Why?
Poor alignment+breathing= muscle compensations=pain=poor performance=injury=poop.
I’m not even going to start on how to address your alignment. That’s a topic for another time. But when your mom tells you to stand up straight, she actually has a point (she just might not know all the reasons why). Start by not doing this:
2) Increase tidal volume. Tidal volume refers to the amount of air you move around with each inhalation and exhalation (depth of breathing). Deeper breathing is more effective than increased breathing frequency (more breaths), so train yourself to take deeper breaths. Especially while exercising, but also at rest.
3) Train nasal breathing. Breathing through your nose is so much better for you than mouth breathing. It also comes in handy when you’re eating, making it all the more essential for life… Think about it.
Anyway, here’s some reasons why nasal breathing is superior:
- According to this study, nasal breathing resulted in less bronchoconstriction post-exercise. Good news for asthmatics.
- Nasal breathing tends to be deeper, and deep, slow breathing (aka increased tidal volume, remember?) increases parasympathetic nervous system activity by activating the vagus nerve, making you more relaxed and less stressed. Read this cool article for ways to manualy activate your vagus nerve. Unless you really enjoy stress… In which case DON’T read it, whatever you do.
- Nasal breathing delivers oxygen more efficiently.
- Nasal breathing reduces sleep apnea.
4) Practice “umbrella” breathing. I first read about the umbrella breath HERE on Dr. Jeff Cubos’ website. While “belly breathing” is great, you can take it a step further and visualize your ribcage expanding laterally with each inhalation. You can see in the picture below that the diaphragm isn’t just in the front of your body, but rather, lines the entire ribcage, and so when you inhale you should imagine it is expanding 360 degrees. Like an umbrella. Try it. It’s weird-feeling…
When should you practice breathing? More like, when shouldn’t you practice breathing. I mean, you like being alive, right?
You don’t have to get all OCD like me, but do pay attention when you can. A good initial move is to take a yoga class, and when they tell you to focus on your breath, actually do that. And not just once, but for the whole class. It helped me. It might help you too.
Got any breathing tips? I’m looking at you yogis and yoginis reading this… cough*abbyhoffman*cough. Leave a comment below and let me know. I’d love to hear what you think.