We all breathe constantly throughout the day. Our bodies breathe almost automatically, with no thought at all unless something brings it into our conscious awareness. On the other hand, when we exercise hard, experience pollution, or get sick, breathing can suddenly consume our full attention.
Throughout history, various cultures have engaged in breathwork practices involving conscious effort focused on breathing with particular timing, depth, and patterning. These practices have often been dismissed by modern science and medicine, but recently the science has caught up. We now know that there are innumerable benefits to focused breathwork. These include reducing stress at the physiologic level, boosting athletic performance, influencing activation of the autonomic nervous system, improving sleep, and even changing the skeletal structure of the face.
I will get into the specifics of different breathwork practices in a future post, but today I’d like to focus simply on what breathing actually is and how it works. I’ll try not to get too deep in the scientific weeds here, but there is value in understanding the basic anatomy and physiology of breathing.
What is Breathing, REally?
Breathing is the process by which we move air into and out of the lungs. The air that comes in contains oxygen that is exchanged in the lungs for carbon dioxide, which we then breathe out. Oxygen is utilized by all of the cells in our body (in a process called cellular respiration) to produce the energy that keeps us alive. Carbon dioxide is a waste product of that process. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported through the blood stream.
When we breathe in, the air is drawn into small sacs in the lungs called alveoli. The walls of the alveoli are filled with small blood vessels that allow for the exchange of carbon dioxide from the body’s cells for oxygen from the air.
So, in the simplest terms, breathing is the process by which we intake oxygen – used to produce energy through cellular respiration – and expel carbon dioxide – the waste product of cellular respiration.
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How Does Breathing Work?
Breathing has two basic phases, inhalation (breathing in) and exhalation (breathing out). Inhalation is an active process, meaning it involves active muscle contraction. Exhalation, on the other hand, is primarily a passive process and happens as the muscles relax. Now, this is only true during relaxed breathing. If we are breathing heavily or our breath is restricted in some way, exhalation becomes an active process as well. The two primary muscles of respiration are the diaphragm and the external intercostals. There are also a number of accessory muscles that assist with respiration including the abdominals, pectorals, serratus anterior, and others.
The diaphragm is a large muscle that forms a physical separation between the cavities of the chest and abdomen. In its relaxed state, it forms a dome with the bulge pushing upward into the chest cavity. When the diaphragm contracts, it draws down into the abdominal cavity. This motion reduces pressure in the chest cavity, causing the lungs to expand and outside air to be drawn in. Simultaneously, the pressure in the abdominal cavity increases. As a side note, this increase in intra-abdominal pressure is crucial for creating spinal stability. Thus, the diaphragm is actually considered to be a “core” muscle along with the pelvic floor, psoas, and abdominals.
As the diaphragm contracts downward, the external intercostal muscles (which lie in between the ribs) contract to raise the ribcage and sternum. The ribs expand in multiple directions: outward, forward, and up. This expansion further opens the lungs, assisting the diaphragm with inhalation.
To sum things up, breathing is a process that exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide in our lungs. Oxygen is transported from the lungs to the body’s cells where it is used to create energy. In that process, carbon dioxide waste is created and transported back to the lungs where it is exhaled. Inhalation happens when the diaphragm and external intercostals contract, creating negative pressure in the thoracic cavity and drawing air into the lungs. Exhalation occurs passively as these same muscles relax.
That pretty well covers the basics of how we breathe. There are plenty of nuances to the process and the information is out there if you want to go deeper. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
There are many types of conscious breathwork that all influence our bodies in different ways. I will go into specific breathwork strategies and the associated benefits in future posts. Be sure to subscribe to my blog to get updates when a new article drops!
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.