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Is The Way You're Breathing Giving You Tension? Here's How To Know

Yael Bloch
Certified Yoga Teacher By Yael Bloch
Certified Yoga Teacher
Yael Bloch is a yoga and meditation instructor who trained at École Française de Yoga in Paris. She lives in Bucharest and is a regular contributor to the French yoga journal Les Carnets du Yoga.
Is The Way You're Breathing Giving You Tension? Here's How To Know
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Something we often talk about, but at times have trouble tapping into, is our breath. Sure, we pay attention to our breath in yoga classes or during a meditation session, but other than that, our body breathes involuntarily and we live our lives unaware of it. Meanwhile, our breath has so much control and influence over our body's ability to function. In her book Breathe Slower, Deeper, Better: Make Deep Breathing a Habit With Simple Yoga Exercises, Yael Bloch uncovers how movement, stretching, and yoga can help us breathe better and, in turn, be better. The below is an excerpt from her book about how to know whether you're breathing correctly, and what to do if you're not.

Our breath constantly adapts to shifting circumstances and, over time, we've come to unconsciously develop certain routine breathing patterns. Habits become ingrained through repetition, and breathing is the gesture we repeat the most—approximately 21,600 times a day. Our breathing patterns are therefore deeply ingrained. Still—and this is one of yoga's pledges—we are not prisoners to our habits, everything can be transformed, and every breath is an opportunity to breathe differently if we so desire. By relearning how to breathe, we can reprogram ourselves, becoming healthier in the process.

There are many forms of breathing, all with their advantages and disadvantages, but certain forms should be avoided when in regular breathing positions (either seated or standing). Donna Farhi has identified seven ways of "breathing poorly" and the effects they have on our minds and bodies:

1. Reverse breathing

The belly is tucked in during inhalation and inflates during exhalation. Physiologically, this is called "paradoxical respiration," which is how I will refer to it going forward. This type of breathing is nonetheless sometimes prescribed for certain pathologies (hiatal hernias, for example).

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2. Chest breathing

The belly is tucked in and permanently contracted. Certain yoga exercises encourage this sort of breathing with the specific aim of broadening expansion of the rib cage.

3. Collapsed breathing

High, very limited breathing, in a collapsed position. Shoulders are tucked in, and the abdomen protrudes, untoned and still.

4. Hyperventilation

Breathing that is overly fast, a possible consequence of exacerbation of chest breathing. It can be a consequence of certain heart and kidney problems or of diabetes.

5. Throat holding

This is a similar sensation to what we feel when we are holding back a strong emotion—the urge to cry, for example. In yoga, we practice ujjayi, in which the glottis is closed.

6. Breath grabbing

Rushing from one breath to the next without waiting to feel the need to inhale or the need to exhale.

7. Frozen breathing

Shallow breathing, such as when we are cold and our respiratory movements are restrained by the contractions of our chest and shoulder muscles.

How to identify your breathing pattern.

These breathing patterns all have the tendency to provoke chronic tension in the neck and shoulders, between the shoulder blades, and around the face (jaw, muscles, nose, and eyes), even causing headaches. Neither passive massage nor physical therapy will have any lasting effects on these tensions, which resume with our breathing habits.

Paradoxical breathing is anti-physiological and can be difficult to identify without help. Even so, it requires rehabilitation. 

Chest breathing, collapsed breathing, and hyperventilation are quite similar, but their diagnosis comes from studying the movements of the belly and rib cage. The tyranny of flat bellies and tight clothing has wreaked havoc on our bodies. In most poor breathing patterns, the belly struggles to find its proper place, curtailing the diaphragm's movement and depriving us of precious energy. Let us once again engage the full breadth of breath that our bodies were given by nature. When inhaling, we must learn—as children do and as Karlfried Graf Dürckheim suggests—to "let the lower belly go." When exhaling, as Donna Farhi explains, the belly "retracts back but does not contract. The retraction has tone and firmness without being rigid or hard."

In a permanently contracted belly, the diaphragm cannot fall. Breath dimension is limited, and breathing migrates to the chest. The respiratory system's secondary muscles take over for the diaphragm and allow the ribs to expand. But this isn't their role. Even though we can't feel it—the muscles are deep inside our bodies—they tire more quickly and easily than the diaphragm. Breathing becomes less efficient, and the neck, shoulders, rib cage, chest, and upper back contract and grow stiff.

The negative effects of a permanently contracted belly can be far-reaching:

  • A permanently contracted muscle becomes weak. Our muscles are designed to work in a cycle of contraction and release. So, though we may think we're making our belly stronger, we're actually doing the opposite.
  • Contrary to popular belief, although strong abdominal muscles can help take the pressure off our backs, a permanently contracted abdomen will only increase tension and stiffness in the lower back. A healthy back requires a belly in motion.
  • The organ-stimulating massage triggered by movement of the diaphragm does not occur. 

The detrimental effects of routine chest breathing, which is widespread in the West, are:

  • Stress and/or anxiety as both cause and consequence
  • Accelerated and shallow breathing, as a result of limited breath capacity. This is hyperventilation. (A good breathing rhythm should be 12 to 14 breaths per minute for men and 14 to 15 breaths per minute for women—with the ability to tolerate up to 20 breaths per minute.)
  • Heart disease or hypertension, as evidenced by numerous studies
  • Stagnation of the lower lungs

Throat holding, breath grabbing, and frozen breath are narrow breathing habits. To rehabilitate them, we must draw on a deep-rooted confidence in ourselves.

Urging someone with poor breathing habits to "Breathe!" might result in an accentuation of the shortcomings and negative effects of their breath. The first fundamental step is to ensure that the three stages we went over in the last chapter move in sync with their breath.

Our breathing habits—if we fall into them when resting—change according to several factors, such as temperature, pain, and any substances we might ingest or inhale (stimulants, medication, poison). In the following two chapters, we will look at the influence of our body's position and movements—not to mention our emotions—on breathing.

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The vicious circle of hyperventilation.

According to some, hyperventilation is the most widespread type of dysfunctional breathing. We generally associate it with fast, labored breathing and shortness of breath, but chronic hyperventilation is actually much subtler and can easily go unnoticed.

Hyperventilation is the degeneration of chest breathing. The breath capacity is too low and, as the body isn't getting enough oxygen, it tries to compensate by increasing our respiratory rate, the number of breaths taken per minute. 

This can be the result of mouth-breathing or chronic pain. It can also become a habit caused by repeated exposure to stress: As the body prepares for fight or flight, our nervous system activates and gets ready to send oxygen to our muscles, therefore increasing our metabolism and dilating our blood vessels.

Under each of these circumstances, our breathing becomes faster, even though the activity we're engaged in may not require it. Having inhaled more oxygen than we need, we exhale it alongside a quantity of CO2. And yet, our metabolism remains the same (the body is still) and, though we are exhaling fast, CO2 production does not rise. The result is that the concentration of CO2 in our blood plummets, causing respiratory alkalosis. The repercussions of this are complex: Our blood vessels contract and our oxygen supply falls; though our inhalation reflex should, in theory, be delayed, stress and lack of oxygen trigger inhalation to maintain an accelerated breathing rate. It's a vicious cycle—the more we try to breathe, the less oxygen is supplied to the body.

The physical consequences, even before they become severe, are many: vertigo, tremors, headaches, loss of focus, heart palpitations, mood swings, anxiety, and depression, not to mention the exacerbation of existing problems or illnesses. Although these symptoms have other root causes, hyperventilation is rarely thought of as one of them.

Excerpt from Breathe Slower, Deeper, Better: Make Deep Breathing a Habit With Simple Yoga Exercises © Yael Bloch, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold,

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