Is there a “right” way to breathe?
While there is not a singular “right” way to breathe, taking a look at what muscles you are using to breathe will tell you a lot about where you hold tension. And yes, there are more efficient ways to breathe that minimize excess tension and stress.
The diaphragm is the major muscle involved. A large, dome shaped muscle that lays horizontally separating the stomach and intestines from the heart and lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, the dome pulls downward and, in cooperation with the intercostal muscles of the ribs, this allows the lungs to expand resulting in a large inhale. Exhaling releases the diaphragm and relaxes the ribs back down.
As simple as that sounds other muscle players want to bring themselves into the mix. The most common are the muscles of the neck/shoulders and the elevators of the collar bones. Take a deep breath right now. Did your shoulders lift? If they did, you are most likely relying too heavily on those accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm. Being able to keep the neck and shoulders relaxed as you breathe will help decrease muscle tension.
Lay down on the floor and put your feet up on a chair so that your lower back is relaxed. Close your eyes and keep your arms down by your sides with your palms turned up. Now focus on your breath. Don’t try to change anything, just take note of what is moving, where your tension lies and how deep/shallow or fast/slow you are breathing. After a few minutes redirect your focus on your belly. On the inhale, let your belly expand and on the exhale let it fall down. Soften your throat, neck and shoulders. Imagine your shoulders gently falling open, widening against the ground.
Now let your rib cage expand wide as you inhale deeply. Then, forcefully exhale while engaging the deep abdominal muscles pulling them up and in, toward the front of the spine. Take a few more deep breaths like that, feeling the expansion and contraction of the ribs and the rise and fall of the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing allows the lung to absorb more oxygen which in turn allows the heart to slow down and the blood pressure to decrease. The opposite of belly breathing would be quick shallow breaths. This sort of breathing automatically speeds up the heart rate and raises blood pressure to ensure there is enough oxygen getting to the rest of the body. Shallow breathing also leaves one feeling anxious and on-edge where as slow, deep breaths promotes calmness and centering.
In Pilates, diaphragmatic breathing is used in combination with a technique called posterolateral breathing. The goal is to really allow the rib cage to expand wide so that the abdominal muscles are able to stay engaged while taking deep breaths. This is important to be aware of while you are exercising. The Pilates movements all heavily rely on use of and initiation from the core muscles. If you were only using diaphragmatic breathing you would have to let go of the abdominal tone and compromise the exercises.
The best way to benefit from this type of breathing is to practice. In the morning, before bed, or whenever you get a few spare minutes during the day, take a moment to sit quietly and focus on your breath. You’ll be surprised at how calming it can be. Hopefully the next time your “fight-or-flight” response jumps in remember to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down and battle whatever comes at you with a clear head.