How Breath Awareness Can Bust Stress, Improve Performance, & Enhance Recovery

By PJ Nestler | Thu Nov 01 2018

The average human takes between 14,400 and 20,000 breaths a day. But be honest—when was the last time you truly focused on even a handful of them? Sure, there are disciplines like yoga, meditation, and martial arts that require breath awareness. But outside of these, our hectic, non-stop (heck, you could even say breathless) culture crowds out the opportunity to pay attention to very much at all, let alone our breath.

And yet, breathing is the most elemental thing we do. As our co-founder Laird Hamilton often says, you could go for a couple of weeks without food and several days without water, but you’d die in mere minutes if you didn’t breathe. Even the best watermen like Laird (and, to an even greater extent, free-divers), can only hold their breath for six or seven minutes without gasping for air. The rest of us would only last a fraction of this time.

This is not to say that extreme breath-hold times are some kind of badge of courage, or are even necessary unless you’re a big wave surfer who’s about to be barreled by giant waves at Peahi or become a Navy SEAL. And even for such folks, maxing out isn’t part of their daily routine. Instead, we need to go back to basics, reconnect with our default breathing patterns, to learn about how breath awareness benefits us.

Back to the Basics of Breathing

Ideally, we should all focus on breathing by taking slow, controlled breaths initiated by the diaphragm at all times. This kidney-bean shaped structure sits underneath the base of your ribcage and acts like a bellows for a fireplace—at least if we allow it to do its job. 

Few people outside the realm of human performance know that the diaphragm’s role also extends beyond breathing. Due to its various attachments to spinal structures and the ribcage, it also has an important role to play in creating and maintaining an organized and upright posture when sitting, standing, and moving.

It’s also worth noting that when we start to stress breathe from our upper chest (typically through the mouth), we start to fatigue secondary respiratory muscles which, as Alex Hutchinson explains masterfully in his book Endure, tells the brain that we’re more tired than we actually are. To protect us from harm, the central governor (see the work of South African Tim Noakes for more on this) starts to slowly shut off the power, eventually stopping our exertion completely. If you’re an athlete, this can be disastrous. 

The Downfall of Apical Breathing

Even those of us who aren’t pros suffer the physical and cognitive effects of taking the diaphragm out of the equation and instead defaulting to an apical breathing pattern that emphasizes breathing in and out through the mouth and reassigning the diaphragm’s duties to the muscles of the upper chest and neck. 

One you’ve probably noticed is chronic soreness in your upper back, shoulders, and neck (massage, anyone?). Even if you’ve got a caring partner who will rub away all that tension, keep taking thousands of these stress breaths each day and you’ll always hold excess tension in these touchy areas.

Deactivating the diaphragm can also profoundly impact your posture. When we’re belly breathing, we naturally engage this structure, which helps us keep upright and maintain a neutral spine no matter what activity you’re partaking in. But when we start chest breathing instead, the diaphragm eventually goes into sleep mode, taking its stabilizing power out of the equation. Add in the hours many of us spend sitting each day and the poor ergonomics of our office, car, and plane seats and home furniture, and it’s no wonder that a posture perfect storm is keeping back pain at epidemic levels in the West. 

Mouth breathing from the upper chest also affects us at a neural level. The clamor and chaos of our modern world—not to mention excessive technology use and too little exercise—is already putting us on high alert.

When we add in sub-optimal mouth breathing, we’re unconsciously signaling our autonomic nervous system to keep its see-saw tipped down on the sympathetic side (think anxiety, chronic stress, panic attacks, etc.). People who rarely engage the parasympathetic side typically start to suffer from a wide array of side-effects, including poor sleep, mood swings, loss of energy, and lack of focus. 

From a self-monitoring perspective, when we hook such people up to heart rate variability (HRV) monitors, they often have bad scores (whereas slow nasal breathing at approximately 5 breaths per minute improves HRV scores).

Get Back to Belly Breathing

Wow, that’s a lot of bad news, huh?! But luckily, help and hope are at hand. We can begin to undo our self-destructive breathing habits and replace them with constructive ones that benefit our fitness, health, and wellbeing, while also boosting performance and optimizing recovery by regulating autonomic nervous system balance. Another benefit of nose breathing is that it warms, humidifies, and filters the air you breathe, none of which mouth breathing does. 

All said, it’s time to get back to belly breathing. Here are a few ways to follow your breath back to your diaphragm and a proper nasal breathing cadence.

XPT students breathwork

1. Emphasize the Diaphragm

  1. Lie down on your back, placing your left hand on your abdomen, near your belly button. Put your right hand on your sternum.

  2. Inhale through your nose. You should notice the hand on your belly rising quite a bit, while the hand on your chest only moves a little bit.

  3. Slowly exhale through your nose. Again, there should be more movement in the hand that’s on your tummy than the one on your chest (although the latter will move a little, as your lungs are in your chest cavity, not your abs). To help emphasize the visual cue, you can try placing a shoe on your tummy, watching how it rises and falls as you continue nose breathing.

  4. Now, inhale and exhale quickly through your mouth. See how the hand on your chest rises and falls more than the one on your belly. This is because you’ve de-emphasized your diaphragm.

2. Create Abdominal Expansion

  1. Still lying on your back, place the fingers of each hand a few inches above your hips, with your thumbs on the sides of your lower back.

  2. Take a few more nasal inhales/exhales, seeing how your hands move out and in as you do so.

  3. Keeping your hands in place, take a few mouth inhales/exhales. Notice how your hands no longer move as much.

3. Recognize Diaphragm Breathing

  1. Take another few nasal inhales/exhales. This time, concentrate on what it feels like rather than focusing on your hands.

  2. Remove your hands and take a couple more nasal inhales/exhales. Again, clear your mind to focus on the sensation of your breath wave (a fancy way of explaining how the breath travels up and down our bodies like, well, an ocean wave). Closing your eyes might help you dial in on the sensation of belly breathing.

4. Stand (and Breathe) Like Superman

  1. Now I want you to recreate the position from exercise #2 while upright.

  2. To do so, stand up with your feet shoulder width apart.

  3. Place the fingers of each hand on the sides of your abdominals, with the thumbs on your lower back.

  4. Take several nasal inhales and exhales, noting how your hands move out laterally with every breath.

  5. Now repeat with your hands down by your sides, concentrating on the feeling of the nasal breathing.

5. Nasal Breathing to Downshift at Night + During the Day

  1. Commit to spending five to 10 minutes nasal breathing each evening for a week.

  2. To begin, lie down on the floor, your bed, or a couch.

  3. Inhale through your nose for five seconds, hold for 15 seconds, and then exhale nasally for 10 seconds. Repeat this for five to 10 minutes. Notice how you feel afterwards. I’m guessing you might use words like “calmer,” “chilled out,” and “relaxed.”

  4. Any time you feel stressed throughout the day, switch your focus from your circumstances to your breathing. Then, take a few slow nasal breaths to re-center yourself.

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