How to breathe better

How to breathe better

It is a common experience for many physical therapy professionals such as chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and others to notice that many of their patients suffering from back problems have poor breathing habits. The expansion and contraction of the ribcage with deep inspiration is often abnormal, uneven from left to right  and they often breathe in at a different speed to breathing out. They also tend to suffer from a range of other conditions including cardiovascular, digestive and stress related health issues. An important key in rehabilitating many of these conditions is to get them to breathe more effectively.

The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle, shaped like a parachute that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. It is attached to the ribcage around its edge and above it attaches to the lining of the lungs as well as a thick tethering ligament to the bottom of the heart.dphrgm2


Breathing involves contracting the diaphragm. When it contracts, it flattens, pushing down and outwards. This should make the lower ribs expand outward, while causing the upper ribs to move forward and up. As the diaphragm contracts and descends it causes air to be drawn into the lungs; it increases pressure in the abdomen, which promotes the circulation of blood through the organs, movement of food through the digestive system and secretion of hormones and other important substances. It also causes the heart to be pulled downwards, which assists the heart in pumping blood. The diaphragm is therefore considered to be the most important muscle in the body besides the heart – which it assists.



Our breathing patterns are influenced by many factors. A common one is structural – such as scoliosis causing the ribcage to be twisted, making breathing uneven. Another is arthritis scolribsand stiffness of the back, which prevents the spine and ribs from moving normally and restricting the capacity for air to enter the lungs. Another important influence is stress, which causes our breathing to become shallow and quick, rather then deep and slow when we are more relaxed. Maintaining stress over long periods of time can totally alter our breathing  and hence oxygen levels, which can have wide ranging and destructive effects on our health.


It is important therefore to do everything possible to ensure that we breathe properly, something that few people do well enough to stay healthy. Proper diaphragmatic action can help to free up the spine and make it more flexible; it can improve heart function and lessen stress on your cardiovascular system – which is particularly important if you are already a heart disease sufferer; and it can improve all of your abdominal organs in their function, including the liver, oesophagus, stomach, bowels and other vital organs.






Some simple breathing exercises:

Deep diaphragmatic breathing.

  1. Lie on your back, in bed or on the floor making yourself relaxed and comfortable
  2. give yourself a hug such that your fingertips are touching the bottom couple of ribs on each side of your chest
  3. Take a slow, deep breath into your belly, being careful to not let your belly lift up, but instead try to expand your lower ribs out to the side into your fingertips. Imagine the air filling the bottom of your lungs first and slowly filling to the top, as if it was like filling a jug with water
  4. Count as you breathe in until your lungs are full – preferably ending with an even number like 6, 8 or 10
  5. Hold your lungs full of air for half of the count you made (e.g. for 3 if your breath in was for a count of 6)
  6. Slowly breathe out, emptying the lungs in the reverse order from the top down (like pouring water out of a jug), making sure to count the same number breathing out as you did breathing in. You should try to feel your ribs lessening their pressure on your fingertips
  7. Once you have breathed out fully, keep the lungs empty for half of the count just as you did when the lungs were full
  8. Cycle through this breathing pattern for 5 minutes every night or as often as you can, breathing in and out with the same count, and holding the lungs full and then empty for half of the in/out count. e.g. Breathe in for a count of 6. Hold the lungs full for 3. Breathe out for 6. Hold empty for 3. Repeat, all the while feeling the ribs actioning into then off your fingertips
  9. With experience, try to increase your count time, breathing slower and holding longer.


Yoga stomach-vacuum (Uddiyana Bandha)


udynaThis is an ancient breathing technique developed in yoga which helps to strengthen the diaphragm as well as to cause a vacuum pressure in the abdomen that helps stimulate bowel motion, and circulation. Think of it as the reverse of pushing into a toilet motion – it decompresses the bowel as opposed to compressing it. It has been used by athletes wanting to strengthen their abdominal muscle wall and was popularised by bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is also commonly used to help repair the linea alba (central tendon of the abdominal muscles) after pregnancy, as well as tone the perineum. It is also an excellent technique during detox programs, such as the one conducted in this clinic

  1. Stand hunched over, knees slightly bent and resting your hands on them.
  2. Take a slow deep breath in as far as you can and hold for a second or two
  3. Exhale forcefully, squeezing all the air out of your lungs then block of your throat to stop air going in and suck your bellybutton up and toward your spine. You should notice a hollowing out of your abdomen
  4. Hold this position for a count of 20, or longer if you can without letting yourself get dizzy.
  5. Release the drawn-in abdomen and throat muscles to allow your lungs to fill again
  6. Do 3 or 4 cycles every morning on an empty stomach.

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