As girls on the go, we spend most of our time running from meetings, to workouts, to appointments, and to the occasional social event. Especially when living in a busy metropolitan city, it seems we’ve forgotten how to truly breathe. We recently met up with Dr. Emily Kiberd, the founder of Urban Wellness Clinic, a chiropractor clinic here in NYC meant to help you move smarter, recover, and just breathe. We spoke to Dr. Kiberd about the connection between our breathing methods and our mental and physical health. Here’s what she told us:
Feel short of breath? Feel your chest tight and difficulty getting a breath in? Notice yourself sighing more often throughout your day? Imagine if you could influence how you breath and how these tense moments could shift immediately all by changing your breath. Luckily. you can. Breathing is the one of the few physiologic functions in the body that is automatic and within your conscious control. These are all signs that you need to exhale more.
Pause and take a deep breath, and see where your breath moves your body. Really, do it. It’s probably all in your chest, lifting up toward your chin. Do the same and take a breath in and out just through your nose. Notice this makes you breathe down into your belly. Take another breathe in and out through the nose and make your exhale twice as long as the breath in. Notice a calm that comes over the body?
Most New Yorkers on the go all day are chest breathers. In an ideal world, we are in a naturally calm state and our nervous system is relaxed (our parasympathetic state) 80% of the day. The other 20% would be consumed by fight or flight, like we are running from a predator or need to fight (our sympathetic state). But alas this 80:20 is flipped to our disadvantage as the reality in NYC is we are movers and shakers and this can require a great output of energy and an amped up state of our nervous system. This leads to chest breathing bc this helps put us in this amped up state. This stress isn’t bad short term, but chronic stress is.
Why should we work toward a calm, slow breath?
Firstly, changes the carbon dioxide levels in the blood makes your blood less acidic, which in turn signals to the brain (specifically the amygdala which is responsible for emotions like fear) that you are not in a fight or flight mode and that everything is calm and okay. It gives you a general sense of wellbeing. A long exhale, ideally twice as long as the breath in tells the brain via the vagus nerve to rest and digest. Also, with a calm breath, the brain and body are no longer in fight or flight. This allows the brain to take on complex problems, problem solve, and make tough decisions. If you really want to perform to your cutting edge best, decide how much of your day you spend in a state of calm.
So, how do we get to that place of calm with the breath? Lengthen your exhale. Here’s how:
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth about a half inch behind the teeth. This will help you breath down into the belly if you are a chest breather.
- Focus on your exhale, not your inhale. Most people focus on pulling the breath in when told “take a deep breath.” Try doing the opposite, pressing all the breath out on the exhale, and the inhale will come when the brain and nerve receptors in the aorta registers that the balance of O2 and CO2 is off in the blood.
- Take a pause at the bottom of your exhale.
- Shoot for an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Start where you’re at, and if your inhale is 2 counts, exhale for 4 counts. Work up to an 8-count exhale.
- Practice sighing, which is effectively a deep exhale. This is an instant reset button for the body and gives the body instant stress relief.
- Sing! Singing forces a long exhale and pulling the belly button in towards the spine, which helps press all the breath out and puts the body in a state of calm.
- On the inhale, think about a 360 expansion through the belly, from front to back and then side to side, which is the trickier component of the breath to feel. An even more advanced breath is expansion right along the bra line in the back on the inhale.
- On the exhale, the belly should soften to the spine and all the breath should be gentle pressed out of the lungs.
Use Your Nose:
The ideal breath is in and out through the nose. There are hairs to filter dirt out and warm the breath before it hits your lungs. Like Joseph Pilates said, your nose is for breathing, your mouth is for eating. If you are absolutely having a hard time breathing through your nose, start by inhaling through the nose and out the mouth. This will help you connect with that calm long slow exhale.
Timing is Key:
A normal breath has about 18 cycles per minute (about 3.3 seconds per breath.) A sense of calm can drop your rate down to 14 cycles per minute. Feeling relaxed would equate to 10 cycles per minute and with deep meditation, you could get to 6 cycles per minute. The idea with this timing within relaxed breathing is to be able to return to this state in between moments of stress or working out quickly as if you didn’t miss a beat.