Breathing: not as automatic as you might think

How do we breathe?

Like everything, the way we do something alters how effective it is. Partaking in a task is not the same as really being absorbed by the process and refining it to the point of near perfection.

Breathing may be natural and automatic, but it’s also one of these processes that requires time and dedication to do it in a way that really effectively benefits you.

In my years of coaching experience, I’ve seen how much a very simple breathing practice can make a huge difference. The great thing being that it doesn’t take much conscious practice before automatic, unconscious breathing throughout the day also becomes deeper and slower.

Say, for example, we can all breathe at around 50% of our true potential with very little effort or even thinking about it. Imagine if you could improve that – how would it affect your life in general?

In order to answer this question, we need to first draw awareness to this essential human process. Some of the questions I was asked by experienced teachers in this field included the following:

  • Do you ever think about the way you breathe?
  • Where do you breathe from? (Upper chest, abdomen, side ribs)
  • Do you ever breathe out of your mouth? (Daily life or during exercise?)
  • How long can you hold your breath for before you gasp for air?
  • Do you get anxious on a regular basis?
  • Do you sound out of breath when you speak?

These questions allow us to understand a little bit more about how we perform this task…and one of the aims of the Feel Free Programme is to reset this process.

Watch how baby breathes – from their belly with very little chest movement. Is that what you do?

The following information helps us to understand how we breathe and whatprocesses are involved.

What happens when we breathe?

Fig 1: The dome-shaped diaphragm muscle, shown in red

There are 46 muscles involved in breathing and these include the diaphragm and intercostals (the internal and external muscles between each of your ribs).

Your diaphragm is the most active muscle in breathing. As you breathe in, it contracts which flattens it downward, increasing the volume of air in your lungs. As you exhale, it relaxes back into its slightly domed shape and the volume of air in your lungs decreases.

Your diaphragm works with your pelvic floor (also called your pelvic diaphragm) to control the pressure in your abdominal cavity. A network of ligaments and fascia connect the two diaphragms.

What happens when we inhale?

Fig 2: How the diaphragm and ribs move when you inhale

When you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts, flattening downwards to increase the volume of the thorax and lungs.

Your external intercostal muscles contract and move your ribs up and out, increasing the diameter of your ribcage.

This causes a reduction of air pressure within your lungs, creating a vacuum which draws air in. The lungs are elastic and expand when the diaphragm contracts.

What happens when we exhale?

Fig 3: How the diaphragm and ribs move when you exhale

Your diaphragm passively relaxes and returns to its resting position. The volume of the lungs decreases, increasing the pressure that forces the air out.

Your external intercostal muscles relax and your ribs move down and in, decreasing the diameter.

Active exhalation involves your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles.

Our nervous system

It is important to recognise the role of your nervous system in order to understand the benefits that breathing can have on us as human beings.

Your nervous system is split into two main parts – the Central Nervous System (CNS = Brain and Spine) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS = basically everything else).

The PNS connects the CNS to every other part of the body. The PNS is then split into three separate branches: the Autonomic, Somatic and Enteric systems.

These are responsible for the following:

  • Autonomic – things that happen by themselves (involuntary) = heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure, organ function, digestion et
  • Somatic – these are the things we need to think about in order to perform (voluntary) = picking up objects, moving joints, talking, breathing etc.
  • Enteric – this mainly refers to the action of the gut and work in a similar way to the autonomic nervous system in the way that they work involuntarily.

Why is this relevant? The diagram below shows the actions that occur with the two major branches of the Autonomous Nervous System – the Parasympathetic and the Sympathetic.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The SNS activates nearly every living tissue in your body to create the ‘fight or flight’ response when you perceive any kind of threat – for instance, to stand up to a bully, or to run from a burning building.

In this process, your blood pressure, adrenaline and heart rate increase, digestion ceases, and glucose release is stimulated by your liver to produce instant energy so that you can either fight whatever is threatening you, or flee it.

The problem is that many of us are thrown into the ‘fight or flight’ response on an hourly basis! These days, we don’t often encounter the kinds of threats to our lives that we did when we were cavemen, so we interpret all kinds of events as threats. We can activate our SNS just by someone skipping the coffee queue and ordering their latte ahead of us!

This is what we call stress and anxiety. When you are feeling stressed by your daily life, and by a chronic health condition, you activate your SNS. The fight or flight response is designed to give you a short-term burst of action, so when your SNS is activated often time – as it does when you are frequently in pain – it creates a physical stress on your body.

Anything physical that’s under undue stress repeatedly, whether it’s your car engine or your body, will gradually become damaged.

The anxiety part of this is when you are worrying about your pain or other symptoms even when they’re not happening in that moment. You’re anticipating it. This still activates the SNS, so you can end up in a situation where your nervous system, and indeed your body, rarely or never get a chance to recover.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The PNS makes you recover from stress. It promotes the ‘rest and digest’ processes. Your heart rate and blood pressure lower, digestion restarts, respiratory rate decreases and adrenaline production reduces.

What’s that got to do with breathing?

Breathing is something we all do automatically, BUT the way in which we breathe has a massive impact on our mind and body. I cannot overstate that.

Breathing is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System, and the amount of oxygen that you inhale influences the amount of energy that is released into your body cells. This progresses via various chemical and physiological processes.

Breathing is the easiest and most instrumental part of the Autonomic Nervous System to control and navigate. And the way you breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body. In short, it’s incredibly powerful.

When things occur naturally, we can often take these processes for granted. Breathing, as a process, is both ‘automatic’ and ‘manual’, because we can
consciously check in with it, and start to control it, then be distracted and forget about it altogether again.

But, if we fail to check in with this process, it can become very inefficient, especially if you have a chronic pain condition which means you tense your muscles including your diaphragm as you are in pain or anticipating pain.

Think of a car…if it is neglected and it goes without a service for years, then a number of things will start to malfunction. The human body is no different and breathing in particular plays a key role in what happens to every nerve ending and cell in our body.

Yet many of us never harness the power of proper breathing to alleviate stress and maintain good health. And by switching from automatic to manual breathing for just a short period each day (5-10 minutes), you can dramatically influence your own nervous system and stress response. This in turn can have a massive effect on your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

Shallow to deep breathing

A relaxed breath originates in the belly and the optimal rate is 6 to 10 breaths per minute. However, most people breathe in a shallow way from their chest 16 to 20 times per minute.

It’s this shallow breath that keeps us feeling continuously on edge because that’s the kind of breathing you’d have to do if you were fighting or fleeing danger. Your breathing is telling your nervous system to activate fight or flight mode.

Think about times when you’ve felt stressed, when your body involuntarily becomes tense, your chest tightens and your breathing becomes very rapid and shallow. Well, the chances are that your daily breathing is not far off this. Not so shallow that you consciously notice, but enough to be significantly affecting your stress response.

The slower and deeper you can breathe, the better you'll feel. This is because deep breathing from your diaphragm strikes the ideal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, triggering various internal mechanisms that promote relaxation.

Try a long exhale exercise

A long exhale has been proven to kickstart the Parasympathetic Nervous System. In other words, it puts your body into recovery mode.

  1. Lie on your back or adopt a comfortable seated position, with good posture.
  2. Close your eyes (if it’s safe to do so).
  3. Take a full inhale through your nose for 3-4 seconds, breathing into your abdomen first, then your lower side ribs, then finally your upper chest.
  4. 4 Hold briefly at the top.
  5. Exhale slowly and evenly through your nose for double the time of your inhale (chest, lower side ribs, abdomen).
  6. Pause briefly.
  7. Repeat for 10 breath cycles

Note: if you are changing any aspect of your breathing, try to maintain the ratio of 1:2 – that is, breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in.

Nasal Breathing

During your day, I would like you to breathe through your nose only. If you breathe through your mouth, you may find this challenging at first. That’s because carbon dioxide is going to build up in your system a little bit more when you breathe through your nose, meaning that you will feel the urge to breathe a little bit sooner than if you are exhaling through your mouth. That’s all right, over time this will correct and come into balance.

Start by trying this stationary – you could be sitting in a chair or resting. Just begin to focus on breathing through your nose only, keeping your mouth closed.

Once you are happy with this, start to introduce nasal breathing on your daily walks. Try to ensure that your pace reflects your nasal breathing. If you start to get out of breath, slow the pace or stop until you can start to breathe through your nose again. Another tool is to set an alarm every hour to remind you to breathe through your nose. You can also place notes around your house saying ‘nose!’. Try this for a week see how you get on.

You may struggle to begin with, but I promise you that in time this will make a massive difference to the way you sleep, the way you move, and your whole physical performance.

Lying Down

This time, we are going to start to focus on where we breathe to and from. To begin with, lie on your back, place your hands on your lower ribs with your fingertips resting in the centre, and take a long exhale to begin with.

All I want you to do is start to breathe in and back out through your nose, and notice where you naturally breathe to. Take note of this and see if you can start to change this with the following exercise.

To start with, breathe into your fingertips. If this is done correctly, you will see your fingertips moving apart as you breathe in and moving towards each other as you breathe out. We will call the area that expands chamber one.

After a few breaths, start to breathe into the heels of your hands – we will call this area of expansion chamber two. I want you to visualise your ribs moving up and out. Chamber one will be up towards the ceiling/sky, chamber two will be out at a diagonal.

After a few more deep breaths, we will progress to chamber three. This is the upper chest area, just below your collar bones. If you’ve been doing the previous drills correctly, you will only be able to find about 10% or less in this upper area.

Take a full breath in, counting the chambers one, two and three as they fill up, then slowly breathe out counting chambers three, two and one as they empty.


Now we will take everything we learned in the previous sessions and introduce them into a sitting position. Please feel free to use a chair or cushions to make this position more comfortable, especially in the initial stages.

Because we are now activating postural muscles which were relaxed in the other positions, this will be a little bit more challenging. Try to relax any muscles that you feel are not assisting your breathing process.

Start by sitting in a comfortable position, making sure that your hips are higher than your knees, to allow the hip flexors to relax and to enable you to sit upright.

Take a full inhale through the nose to begin filling the chamber one area, followed by chamber two and finally into chamber three. At the end of the inhale, take a slight pause, and then exhale counting down – three, two, one.

After two minutes of this breathing method, we will start to add a form of retention (a breath hold) at the top of the inhale.

One round / breath cycle = inhale 3,2,1 & hold for 3,2,1 then exhale for 3,2,1 & hold.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

When you’ve become familiar with the breathing sessions that are taught early in the Feel Free Programme, you might want to develop your skills by trying Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Start by sitting in a comfortable position with good posture. Take an exhale through your left nostril to begin with, to check it is clear. Now close the right nostril and inhale through the left for a count of three. After the inhale, switch nostrils and start to exhale through the right nostril for a count of three.

Stay on the same nostril and inhale for three, then switch back to the left nostril and exhale for three.

As time continues, begin to lengthen your exhale until you reach an exhale which is double the inhale in length. For example, your inhale equals three seconds so your exhales will equal six seconds.

Feel free to move this up to four seconds and eight seconds if you find this very comfortable. If you’re finding it challenging, go back to two seconds and four seconds.

Alternate Nostril Breathing + Retention

This may feel more challenging as we introduce the retention to the alternate nostril breathing method. Retention is just a breath hold.

You may find the long exhales quite difficult at first because the tempo and the exhale through the nose slow down the release of carbon dioxide from your body.

Think of this as sticking your thumb on the end of a garden hose, it creates a back pressure which is harder to contain. In time your body's tolerance to a carbon dioxide build-up will improve. The main thing is to stay consistent.

This technique involves a retention between the inhale and the exhale, on the switch. At the end of your inhale, we are aiming to hold the breath for the same amount of time it took us to inhale.

The ratio is very important to improve how well the Parasympathetic Nervous System works. The ratio is; 1:1:2:0 – meaning that we could inhale for three
seconds, hold for three seconds, exhale for four seconds, then without any hold after the exhale inhale again.

The same ratio applies to longer and slower counts. Pause during the video or continue after it’s finished if you would like to go at your own pace. Repeat this process daily and perform at least 10 full breath cycles.

1 Full Cycle = Inhale L, Hold, Exhale R, Inhale R, Hold, Exhale L