Have you ever noticed that there are people who want to tell you how to breathe, usually beginning by telling you that the way you are breathing is all wrong? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been breathing all my life without their instructions, and have been very successful with it. There are many ways of breathing, and all of them have certain good and questionable qualities. So in this post I’m not going to tell you how to breathe. Instead, I’ll show you some of the ways we breathe, their advantages and disadvantages, and give you the choice. Personally, I think the ideal thing is to practice all of these methods and be able to choose the one you need at any particular time.
This particular post is strictly about Western understandings. There are far more Eastern techniques and I’ll look at some of them in a future post.
Upper Chest Breathing
The easiest way to tell if you are chest breathing is to simply observe yourself. If your chest is expanding and contracting with each breath, chances are you are doing Upper Chest Breathing. Another sign of UCB is that your shoulders move up and down with each breath. The mechanics of this consist of your neck muscles and chest muscles lifting the breast bone and upper ribs. However, the breast bone can’t just come up, it also comes forward, taking the ribs with it. This opens space around the upper lobes of the lungs, allowing them to fill with air.
Contrary to common belief, in some situations this is a great way to breathe. For example, in dangerous situations it will allow you to tense the muscles of the abdomen, protecting the internal organs. The organs of the chest are protected by the ribs. Chest breathing may also be good for appealing to the opposite gender. In both sexes it allows you to contract your stomach muscles, giving the impression of a smaller waist. In men, it allows a male to show a broader chest, similar to the way a peacock displays its tail. In women it allows the breasts to be presented to attractive males. This is usually done on an unconscious level, if at all.
UCB also has some strong negatives. It does not provide for the full use of the lungs down to the bottom of the lower lobes. This allows pollutants to sit in the lungsâ€”possibly harming the lungs or entering the bloodstreamâ€”rather than being expelled. It doesn’t make full use of the lungs. Years ago, when wearing tight corsets was common for women, the clothes literally enforced this type of breathing. As it prevented getting a full breath, some women would actually pass out as a result of not getting enough oxygen. Rather than simply end the clothing style, designers came up with special “fainting couches” for the women who would pass out.
While UCB can be good at times, using this type of breath as your regular breathing mode is generally not a good idea. Take a finger, press it deeply between two ribs, and move it back and forth in that space. If you detect a soreness, those small chest muscles (known as the intercostals) are doing work they’re not designed for.
You may have heard that you should be breathing from the belly. Unfortunately, this, at best, is only partially true. You can tell if you’re belly breathing if your stomach moves in and out but your lower ribs don’t move much and the upper chest doesn’t move at all. Belly breathing gives a fuller breath than UCB. It allows partial use of the lung’s upper lobes and fuller use of the lower ones. It helps the blood become more fully oxygenated and allows the lungs to flush out any pollutants that have sunk to the bottom area. It also has the effect of massaging the stomach’s organs and can help with digestion. With regular use it may actually help with problems like indigestion, constipation, heartburn, etc.
But belly breathing is not perfect. First, because it doesn’t open the upper ribs, it doesn’t make full use of the upper lobes of the lungs. Second, it doesn’t center on the one muscle designed to work your lungs, the diaphragm. It pushes down on the abdominal organs. They have to go somewhere, so they push the stomach out, usually to the front and sides. This can actually give rise to a “middle-age spread” long before middle age, or to a “beer belly” even though you don’t drink beer. Still, this is a particularly good way to build up that “fire in the belly,” and strengthen the feeling of courageousness.
The diaphragm is the largest muscle in the body, looking like the top of an umbrella, separating the chest (under the ribs) from the abdomen. With diaphragmatic breathing this muscle contracts below the lungs as the lower ribs expand to the sides and the muscles open up the lower back. This results in a slight vacuum within the lungs, causing air to rush in. To exhale, the lower ribs and muscles (including the diaphragm) contract, pushing the air out of the lungs.
This allows the lower part of the lungs to fill fully with air without pushing the abdominal organs out of place. It’s great for doing certain types of breathwork, including yoga, because to be successful with it requires a straight back. You really can’t do this hunched over. It’s good for posture and for clearing the mind. It cleans out the lungs, allows you to get a fuller breath, and massages the abdominal organs in place. Classically trained singers often use this type of breathing or do a modification of it called “full body breathing.” In this type of breathing you actually do diaphragmatic breathing, but imagine that you are breathing all the way down to the toes. As you exhale with your entire body you get a strong foundation that supports your vocal “instrument.”
The Complete or Magickal Breath
When doing diaphragmatic breathing, the upper ribs do not expand, preventing you from using the entire expanse of the lungs to their fullest. This is resolved with the complete breath, also known as the Magickal Breath. Most people do not use this all the time, so by focusing on this you bring your consciousness to an awareness that something specialâ€”something magickalâ€”is taking place. Most people are unfamiliar with it. So rather than talk about it, the easiest way to explain it is to describe it.
1. Sit or preferably stand with your back straight.
2. Take a deep breath by whatever way is normal for you and expel all the air completely. You may want to do this a couple of times.
3. With the breath still expelled, move your shoulders back so they are straight from left to right.
4. Slowly and consciously begin to inhale. As you do, allow your upper chest to expand.
5. Continue the breath, allowing it to move lower in your lungs. Allow your ribs to expand out.
6. Continue the breath, allowing it to fill the lowest part of your lungs. Allow your stomach to expand so there is room for the air to totally and completely fill the lungs.
7. Hold the inhalation for a moment.
8. Without contracting the ribs, bring in your stomach, exhaling your breath.
9. Repeat steps 6â€“8 for the duration of the magickal breath.
10. When you are ready to end this work, simply exhale, allowing the ribs to contract, and return to your normal breathing pattern.
Using the magickal breath may feel quite strange and difficult during your first several experiments. You may find that certain musclesâ€”especially those of the sides, lower back and the diaphragmâ€”will become sore. With practice, that will fade away. As you can see, it’s complete because it uses the entire lungs and appropriate musculature. It’s magickal because it’s a great way for doing breathwork that will build magickal energy.
The Four-Fold Breath
On of the most popular ways to use the breath to build energy is with the four-fold breath. The concept is simple:
Inhale to a count of four. Hold for a count of four.
Exhale for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Repeat.
The count can be fast or slow, whatever works for you. If you have difficulty, you can change this to inhaling and exhaling for a count of four while holding (after both the inhale and exhale) only to a count of two. The idea is to consciously regularize your breathing pattern. For me, I have found that this is primarily good only for more meditative work.
However, if you perform this within the context of the Magickal Breathâ€”doing the four-fold breath during step nineâ€”I’ve found a practitioner can quickly build up magickal energy that can be directed for any magickal purpose.
Give these techniques a try and see how they work for you. Please use the comments to let readers know your results.
If you have other ideas about breathwork, you can share them in the comments section, too.