/ 28 July 2008

The ins and outs of breathing

Breathing may rank among the most involuntary, automatic activities imaginable, but still we foul it up.

“I teach people to take a ‘dynamic’ breath in,” says Peter Knapp, a former opera singer and now a voice and communication skills trainer. “To do so, you have to engage the intercostals, the muscles that pull the ribs up and out. Feel mine! As I breathe in, my ribs are moving about 8cm laterally.”

Inhaling like this can result in up to 30% more air entering the body. “Then we have to drive the breath out. It’s not about saving the breath, it’s about getting it out of the body powerfully and smoothly and we use the abs to do so. We don’t drive the air out of the body as well if our abs aren’t in good shape.”

Knapp recommends three daily exercises to anyone wanting to improve their breathing technique.

Firstly, there’s the “schuss“, a German term for a downhill ski movement. “Raise your arms high above your head then swing them downwards bending your knees. Straighten your knees again, swinging your arms up above your head. Breathe out as you go down and in as you swing up. With the downward swing, you’re completely pumping all the breath out of your lungs, using the abs. With the upward swing, you’re opening the ribcage, using the intercostals.”

Next comes the “candle”. “Keeping a relaxed, upright posture, take in a breath and then blow out firmly, as if you were blowing out a candle, and do it for four counts keeping it consistent until you’ve emptied your lungs. Feel the abs contract, and hold the contraction for a couple of seconds before inhaling again.”

Finally, there’s “intercostal resistance” work. “Take a couple of deep breaths with your fists pushing into your ribcage on each side. Feel the beginnings of an outwards movement. Now put your top teeth quite firmly on your bottom lip as if you were going “Ffffffffffff —” and breathe in. Feel how hard the intercostals have to work to get that breath in.”

Intercostal resistance work has been part of athletes’ training regimes, which resembles an inhaler for asthmatics, and requires users to breathe in against a resistance.

“People in gyms tend to work the exhalatory muscles, the abs,” says personal trainer and sports physiotherapist, Rob Smith, “but it’s important to make those inhalatory muscles strong, too. A good rule is to remember to exhale on the effort, for example the upwards push on a bench press, or the pull on a pull-up.”

Improved breathing also brings about what tai-chi instructor Brian Cooper calls “stillness”. “Someone under stress will usually breathe shallowly because their nervous system is over-revved. If you breathe slowly, evenly and continuously, the nervous system slows down and you become calmer.”

Cooper teaches a four-part breathing technique. “The first part is to observe your breath in different circumstances. In a stressful scenario, for instance, it’ll be shallow and from the upper chest rather than lower down. Next, we breathe with the belly, and start to feel comfortable expanding the ribs sideways.

“After that, we’ll work on feeling the lower back area expand as we breathe. Finally, we look towards the upper back moving, but not the chest. Getting the diaphragm to expand causes pressure to occur on the lower part of the torso, so you get a great massage for the internal organs.

“With tai-chi, when you’re breathing properly, the idea is to be in a calm, meditative state. Even in the middle of a fight.” —