The Ins and Outs of Breathing: Part I


The Three Forms of Chest Breathing


Breathing is perhaps the most important physical action we do in order to stay alive. We can do without food for a month or longer (depending on how much our body has already stored), water for about a week, sleep for about 4 days and breathing for about 4 minutes.

Yet, of these four items, breathing is the one most taken for granted. Perhaps that is because it is the only one we do not consciously set out to do. It is so important that we are wired to perform it automatically. Well, that is not completely true. Although we are hard wired to perform the function of breathing automatically, the circuit we use is not fixed in stone. It is adaptable.

The problem with this is that since it was wired correctly to begin with, the only changes to it that can be made easily are the ones which will make it less correct than the original pattern.

Babies and all people when they are asleep breathe correctly. Somehow, as we mature into childhood from infancy our breathing pattern changes from diaphragmatic breathing to chest breathing as adults. This then poses a problem for all of us who are lucky enough to learn of this change: we must learn how to return to diaphragmatic breathing.

There are three kinds of Chest breathing. Let’s call them upper chest breathing, middle chest breathing and lower chest breathing.

The following is a list of all the negative responses upper chest breathing produces in our bodies:

Upper chest breathing requires the greatest expenditure of energy to perform since it involves raising the height of the upper chest and moving the shoulders. This can result in chronic tension in the neck and shoulder muscles which can produce stiffness and soreness in those areas; as well as, headaches. It may also cause your Lumbar spine (lower back) to make a small arch every time your shoulders rise. This could lead to fatigue in that area and eventual chronic low back pain.

It is the least efficient method and results in the least amount of gaseous exchange between the lungs and the outside. Thus, one needs to breathe more rapidly to maintain the proper ration of gases in our blood supply. It can also signal the brain that you are anxious (even if there is no other reason to be) and the brain will respond to it as it would to any other cause of anxiousness.

  • It involves the least smooth physical action and is the mostly likely to result in gaps between one’s inhalations and exhalations. 
  • It is associated with Fear. 
  • It is the most likely method of breathing to result in gaps between the inhalations and exhalations.

Middle Chest breathing is what most people do. This method uses the intercostal muscles (those located between the ribs) to expand and contract the rib cage. It is also a shallow way of breathing and not very efficient. This method has the following effects:

Middle chest breathing is associated with the fight or flight syndrome (see the article entitled Fight or Flight Response (need hyperlink) for a more detailed list of its major physiological responses and the potential major health problems associated with it).

Our body’s defenses work like a two-way street. Psychological changes will produce physiological changes and physiological changes will produce psychological changes. In other words, whether your body changes your mind or your mind changes your body, you will end up in the same state of being: Stressed Out (even if it is only low level stress).

Chest breathing keeps us in a chronic state of low level stress. As we know, higher levels of stress are associated with higher levels of mortality from many causes. I do not think anyone knows all of the effects caused by chronic low levels of stress. But, I truly believe it can’t be good.

In addition, the intercostal muscles become fatigued and eventually lose their elasticity which then makes the rib cage less elastic. This makes our upper body less flexible and our breathing even less efficient.

This brings us to the last form of chest breathing: low chest breathing.

This form of chest breathing utilizes the lower portion of the chest to breath. This method occurs when the lower abdomen expands with the inhalations and contracts on the exhalations. Many people call this “Belly Breathing” or Diaphragmatic Breathing. Regardless which one of these two a person’s breathing may be, they will still be using the lungs and hence the chest to breathe. Let’s not quibble of the mane of this particular method of breathing. Let’s agree that this way is the best of the three forms by far. Having agreed to that, I will now take the examination of this method a step further than most other experts.

Most breath work instructors say that this is diaphragmatic breathing. I say that this way may or may not be fully diaphragmatic breathing. This is because most “experts” say that belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are one and the same. I say they are definitely not the same.

Inhalation using Belly Breathing is accomplished by moving the belly outward using the abdominal muscles. This expansion of the abdomen causes a vacuum to develop which causes the diaphragm to drop and the lungs to expand. On the other hand, true diaphragmatic breathing is initiated by contracting the diaphragmatic muscle to which pushes this dome shaped sheet of muscle downwards. This downward motion of the diaphragm pushes the wall of the abdomen outwards and creates the vacuum which causes the lungs to expand. To fill this void the lungs expand. Then air rushes into the lungs to fill the void which that creates in the lungs themselves.

Exhalation is activated in both cases by relaxing the diaphragm which causes it to rise back up to its original position.

Although this sounds simple, there was really a lot of “thought” that went into making it happen. For example, the diaphragm actually has two sections: the outer muscle section and a central section composed of a thick central tendon. The outer section actually has cuts outs in it for the aorta, inferior vena cava and the esophagus; as well as, many other smaller ones. These cutouts enable the up and down action of this tough sheet of muscle not to interfere with other important physiological functions such as eating, drinking and the flow of blood to and from the lungs.

To repeat this important point:

Diaphragmatic Breathing only occurs when the Diaphragm itself initiates the action of inhalation and exhalation.

There is another form of breathing which is actually composed of all three kinds of chest breathing which are performed in a specific order and which will be discussed in part II of this article.