How To Breathe – Literally

Most people have never stopped to think, “Am I breathing well?” because it seems like a patently ridiculous question. Sure, you’re breathing – but breathing well will unlock some valuable reserves your that body had long ago, probably as far back as your childhood. Your ability to relax, for example, where did that go? Read on and learn how to make one minor change for a life of good health and happiness.

Our modern lifestyle involves a lot of sitting, which is a relatively new invention for the human frame. Historically humans spent much of their time squatting, standing or lying. Sitting, particularly the way most of us do it, collapses the stomach and hunches the back. Check in with your body now. How are you sitting?

A knock-on effect from sitting so much is that the crumpled abdomen cannot perform its role in respiration. Most of have re-trained ourselves to breathe from the upper chest, using our shoulders, neck and the muscles between our ribs to lift and open when we inhale and collapse as we exhale.

So what? It does the job doesn’t it?

Sure, but it does the job poorly. Like trying to drive a car on a long journey in first gear, the body will still run, but it will burn out, clog up or get bogged down; with stress, with digestive problems, muddled thoughts, poor sleep and a reduced ability to enjoy life.

The chest, neck and shoulder muscles are called accessory muscles of respiration. These muscles have evolved for only occasional use in short-term, high-intensity activities, usually fight-or-flight moments when you need to a lot of oxygen. They don’t ‘breathe’ fresh blood while they work and will cramp – causing aches in the neck or shoulders (starting to sound familiar?).

So, are you a chest-breather? Unless you’re a swimmer, trained singer, or have practiced breathing (such as in Pranayama Yoga), you probably are. Here’s how to tell:

Stand in front of a mirror wearing a tight shirt or just topless (*wolf whistles*). Breathe normally and watch what happens with your body. Next, take a deep breath and watch what happens. A chest breather will:

    • On inhale:
      • Raise their shoulders
      • Puff out their chest
      • Usually open their mouth
      • Their stomach will go in
    • On exhale:
      • Shoulders drop
      • Stomach sags forward (and will often have a bit of a belly)
      • Mouth often open

Because the chest muscles they are designed for stressful high-load situations, breathing with them will cause your system to permanently be on alert. Your body will be constantly and unnecessarily dumping small doses of adrenaline into the blood, causing you to feel slightly stressed all the time. You’ll be permanently crashing from an adrenaline high.

It will cause the aching in your neck and shoulders, and sometimes make you feel short of breath. As you feel short of breath, your body will compensate by breathing more deeply, still into your chest, and upsetting the happy balance of CO2 that should be in the lungs (called carbon shedding). This will cause a runaway effect of actually making you feel further asphyxiated, and the huffing and puffing that ensues often leads to asthma or panic attacks.

The long term effects from prolonged chest breathing are actually caused by breathing too much oxygen. It upsets the blood’s natural pH, causing the system to compensate by introducing bicarbonate into the blood. This bicarbonate-laden blood is more ‘gluggy’ than CO2, (I’m pretty sure ‘gluggy’ is a scientific term) and it won’t get to your brain properly, which is what causes the feeling that you aren’t getting enough oxygen, which you aren’t, because you’re breathing too much oxygen. Confusing, isn’t it?

Relax. Learn to breathe well.

People who breathe well are persuasive speakers, calm leaders and generally healthy people because they use their primary muscles of respiration – which are lower, in your belly. These are the abdominal muscles (your abs) and the diaphragm and, to a lesser extent but of vital importance, the pelvic floor. These muscles are capable of working for extended periods of time without cramping, because they are designed to – and bathe in fresh blood while they work.

Breathing well is actually breathing less. Don’t take a deep breath, take a long, slow breath. Breathe in and out through your nose (the hairs and mucous will clean and moisten the air, making it gentler on the lungs); breathe the air into your stomach.

Stand in front of a mirror again, this time wearing a leotard*. Put a hand on your stomach and watch your shoulders. Practice inhaling air into your stomach, so your belly inflates with air and bulges forward as you breathe into it**. Practice this while watching yourself in the mirror to ensure that your shoulders remain still. With pratice you’ll be able to remind yourself to breathe like this by just touching your stomach.

*Note: Leotard is optional. **Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle inside your ribcage under your lungs – it is actually pulling the lungs down to inflate and in the process is pushing your intestines and ‘guts’ forward, but it feels like your belly is filling with air.

Now that you’ve located the muscles you’ll use to breathe, get a bag of rice or any other kind of weight. Lie flat on your back on the floor and balance the bag on your belly button. Practice lifting the bag as you inhale, pushing it up and away as you breathe air into your belly – take as much time as you can. Keep practicing lifting and lowering the bag as you inhale and exhale, making the movement smooth.

In front of the mirror in your leotard again, put your hand on your stomach and breathe into it, feeling it fill up. Hold it there, with your belly full of air, then use a tensing of your stomach muscles to force out pulses of air, making a ‘Ha ha ha’ sound (it’s a lot like a real belly laugh – and if the silliness of the exercise may cause you to giggle that’s fine, let it!).  Your belly should be deflating in jagged bursts. Keep making ‘Ha ha ha’ sounds – over and over. With this method you’ll be able to (relatively) quickly retrain your muscles to use your stomach to breathe (and talk, if you fancy being more persuasive).

  • If you breathe slowly, gently, through your nose before a meeting, you’ll feel calm and project confidence – your thoughts will seem clear and clever.
  • If you talk from your stomach (with practice of the ‘Ha ha ha’ exercise), you will sound calm and authoritative.
  • As you bathe your soft tissue in properly oxygenated and pH balanced blood, you will think more clearly, and your digestive system will more easily draw nutrients from food.
  • As you engage your stomach and allow your shoulders and neck to rest, you will feel even calmer, your muscles will relax, and you’ll sleep more soundly.
  • If you suffer from asthma, these (and other similar) exercises will reduce your dependence on medication (in some studies by up to 80%). Do some Pranayama or learn Buteyko.

Harry Key is a speech and confidence coach based in London, UK. Website:

Further reading:

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Photo credit: ‘Dynamic Swimmer’ by Big Stock


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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