We all learn a few universal truths at school—the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and breathing is an involuntary and automatic process. But not all breaths are made equal, and just because we’re doing it constantly, doesn’t mean we’re doing it right.
If you’re reading this article, congratulations. However you’ve been breathing your whole life has at least gotten you this far. But Denzel Dion So, a performance breathing coach based in the Philippines, said there’s a big difference between surviving and thriving. As an instructor, he conducts breathing classes for people with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
According to So, breathing affects all major functions of the body. After all, every cell in our body requires oxygen to work, so breathing plays a vital role not just in our physiology but also our psychology.
“When you participate and engage in a breathing practice, it creates a ripple effect into your decision-making process and your response to the environment. These small changes in your lifestyle make you a more resilient human being and give you the opportunity to be in control instead of being controlled,” said So.
VICE asked So about the most common ways people breathe incorrectly, the best ways to breathe, and how to make proper breathing a habit.
What are the most common mistakes people make while breathing?
Denzel Dion So: There are three major issues I commonly observe. The first noticeable problem is mouth breathing. To put it simply, the nose was designed for ventilation and the mouth was designed for digestion. Mouth breathing is an inefficient way to breathe because there is less resistance to airflow, which makes the breath rate a lot faster than it should be. From a biochemistry standpoint, mouth breathing does not allow [as much] air to get into the lower lobes of the lungs. Thus, you’ll often feel light-headedness and fatigue.
The second issue is most people would drive their breathing primarily from their upper chest. When we use our chest muscles for breathing, the major muscle responsible for respiration, which is the diaphragm, becomes stagnant. Breathing then becomes shallow and we often experience tension around our neck and shoulders. It creates this feeling of suffocation, and this kind of breathing tells your brain and body that you’re in danger, which is obviously not a place where you want to be if you’re actually in a safe environment.
Finally, breathing too fast. This is arguably the biggest misconception around breathing. Such a case is not ideal. When you are a fast breather averaging 16 to 20 breaths per minute (a good target is 10 to 14, but anything between six to eight is the most ideal), your brain adapts to it, thinking you would always need to take a breath. This, in effect, gives our bodies a false alarm. It’s no wonder so many people suffer from breathlessness, brain fog, and early onset of fatigue.
The good news is everything I’ve told you is highly trainable.
What is the best way to breathe?
LSD breathing—light, slow, and deep. This is where I’d like to start people off, because the practice itself is so simple that anyone can start implementing it.
When we say breathe light, we mean getting a lesser volume of air in through the nose and a nice smooth exhale through the nose as well. A feeling of air hunger is normal and this is exactly what we want so we can become carbon dioxide (CO2) tolerant. Hardly any noise should be heard during breathing, and you should visualize a tiny little feather floating in the air. That’s how thin and light your breath should be.
When we say breathe slowly, just try your best to lengthen your breath and have a brief pause at the bottom [the end of the exhale]. Fast and shallow breathing correlates to an agitated mind. More often than not, we’re so used to thinking we need to take the next breath without actually internalizing that it’s perfectly fine to stay at the bottom of the breath. Try to get to six to 10 breaths per minute by lengthening the inhales and exhales. A five-second inhale, five-second exhale, and five-second pause at the bottom. Learning to be comfortable in those brief pauses is vital to any breathing practice.
Breathe deeply—learn how to breathe horizontally rather than vertically. Place your hands on your lower ribs like a belt buckle and, when you inhale, you should feel a lateral expansion of your hands. When you exhale you should feel your hands coming closer together. Deep breathing doesn’t only mean feeling the expansion from the front and sides of your belly. You should also feel your lumbar spine or lower back muscles expanding. It’s what we call 3D Breathing—front, sides, and back.
Should the way a person breathes change depending on what a person is doing?
Yes. Context is king. There’s really no clear black-and-white answer to how to breathe 100 percent of the time because this will ultimately depend on a person’s activity. However, in most cases, I would encourage people to breathe through their nose, and learn to breathe slowly and deeply.
During exercise, I have what I call a “gear system.” Depending on the intensity of the exercise, there are various breathing patterns that one can use. There is a time and place for breathing fast and through the mouth (during intense physical activity or when the nose is congested) but more often than not, I’d prefer training people to use their nose while working out. Professional combat athletes and other endurance athletes are slowly benefiting from nose breathing because it helps stabilize the heart rate and achieve faster recovery rates when it comes to conditioning.
During sleep, breathing through the nose is highly recommended. A tell-tale sign that you’re breathing through the mouth during sleep is waking up with a dry mouth or lips. Undiagnosed sleep apnea, where one’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, is a serious sleep disorder, and is deeply correlated to mouth breathing. If you usually wake up feeling tired, that is also a sign that you should start nose breathing during sleep.
How can a person breathe better while sleeping?
Practice breath training during the day. Try to nose breathe for the majority of your day to reinforce proper ventilation. This will eventually spill over to your sleep. Consistency always wins.
Sleep on your side. Sleeping on your back can cause the tongue to fall back towards the throat, which restricts the flow of the airway. Sleeping on one side can help open up the airways, making breathing through the nose a lot easier.
Decongest the nose. Try using essential oils or some nasal clearing breathing exercises wherein you hold your breath at the bottom of the exhale until you feel a moderate to strong air hunger while walking or doing subtle movements.
What are some exercises people can practice to help them make proper breathing a habit?
You can start by doing the LSD breathing I described above. You can also do coherence breathing, which is an equal length of both inhales and exhales. Another breathing pattern in my toolbox is doubling the exhales, which simply means you double the time of your exhales, while implementing LSD.
If you have a clogged nose and you can’t seem to use the nose to breathe, I can recommend performing a nose unblocking exercise first thing in the morning. You breathe normally through the nose for five rounds and at the end of the fifth breath, you pinch your nose and start rotating your head left to right and back and forth until you feel the first noticeable sign to breathe or a healthy build-up of air hunger. Do this for 10 rounds.
More than anything else, it’s about consistency in practice. I recommend having at least two practices in a day (morning and evening sessions) to really receive the benefits. Please also factor in other lifestyle habits such as nutrition choices, movement practice, hydration, and healthy sleep to really enjoy the maximum benefits of your overall wellness.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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