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  • Colin Liggett

How to Breathe

What a ridiculously short title for a ridiculously complex topic. In fact, there are no exact explanations of how to breathe correctly within the therapeutic field and many healthcare practitioners have differing views. Of the literature I have read, the book “Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders” by By Leon Chaitow, Christopher Gilbert and Dinah Bradley is the definitive resource.

Described under the general banner of Breathing Pattern Disorders, BDP can be hyperventilation (rapid breathing, causing decrease in CO2 levels) or hypoventilation (decreased breathing, causing increase in CO2 levels). Of the two, hyperventilation is more common, though if you ask many people who fall under the hyperventilation spectrum, they are likely to tell you they perceive that they do not have enough oxygen in their system (hence the over breathing).

Few people realize the importance of breathing correctly. Here is an example of what can cause hyperventilation and the trickle down effects on the system:

A person working in front of a computer has poor posture, leading to aching shoulders and neck. The pain becomes stressful as they can’t do a full day of work. This stress causes anxiety, which puts the body into “fight or flight” mode. Fight or flight causes them to breath more rapidly and to start using their accessory muscles of breathing (upper chest muscles), which further causes pain in the shoulders and neck, intensifying the anxiety.

With rapid breathing, the body takes in more unnecessary oxygen and loses much needed carbon dioxide. This causes the blood to become more alkaline, which causes smooth muscles to constrict thereby reducing blood flow to the organs, tissues and brain. Calcium is also lost via urine, further causing a magnesium and calcium imbalance in the system which alters neural function, reduces pain threshold, inducing tiredness, weakness, exhaustion and cramps. All of this feeds right back into the anxiety, like a snake eating it’s own tail. Eventually the Bohr effect occurs, whereby red blood cells hold onto oxygen, instead of delivering it to the system and, presto, that feeling of lacking in oxygen is actually there for a physiological reason.

If you have suffered from many of the above symptoms for years and have never been able to quite figure out why, looking into your breathing patterns might be a good idea. There is a wide spectrum of breathing patterns in the general population ranging from hyperventilation syndrome at the extreme end and ideal breathing at the other end. People often slide up and down that scale depending on specific situations.

Normal breathing:

  1. Is initiated at the abdomen, with the belly able to expand all the way down to your ASISs (knobbly bits on the front of your pelvic bones).

  2. The lower ribs should then expand outwards (forwards, backwards and to the sides).

  3. Place a hand on your upper chest. There should be little to no movement in the upper chest as this is reserved for when you are in fight of flight mode or during cardiovascular exercise.

  4. There is no defined ideal breath in/out timing. Whatever your in-breath is, your out-breath should be a ratio of 1 : 1.5 to 2. Therefore, if you breathe in for 4 seconds you should breath out for 6 to 8 seconds. Your breath out should be a relaxation of your breathing-in muscles (not a forced exhalation). Your breath should not be audible.

  5. Do not hold your breath at the end of the intake, but there should be a slight pause at the end of the breath out.

Some suggestions to get you going:

Place your hands on the various places that should be expanding, concentrate on getting each area working individually before you combine them all.

  1. Place your hand on your belly button and try to have it raise as you breath in. If you can’t manage to make your belly move out then try the moves in the following video…

  2. Place your fingers on your belly slightly in from your ASISs. You should be able to make your breath draw in all the way down to this area, causing your fingers to rise slightly.

  3. Place each hand on the sides of your lower ribs and expand your ribs out into your hands. You can push inwards with your hands to give yourself extra feedback.

  4. Place one hand on your lower sternum and one at your lower back, expand your ribs into both hands (the back ribs do not expand a much, but they should move).

  5. Place one hand on the upper chest, try to have the upper chest not move while breathing in or out.

  6. Place one hand on the abdomen and one on the upper chest, try to expand the abdomen without moving the upper chest.

This is not something that can be learnt quickly. Aim to practice twice a day for five minutes- it may take you months to perfect!

Regarding exercise, the best advice I can give is to ensure you are always breathing, do not hold your breath! If you are exerting a lot of force (like lifting in the gym) you should exhale with pursed lips, thus letting air out slowly. This maintains abdominal pressure, which is functionally advantageous.

If you want a head start on this, it is good to book in for a breathing assessment with a Sensory Motor Repatterning (SMR) therapist. I find that approximately 60% of my clients have an overactive diaphragm, which causes them to hold their breath. To explain that another way, 60% of the people I treat have a neurological necessity to hold their breath in order to have their core functioning correctly, thus when they are breathing out, their core turns off, when they inhale or hold their breath the core is on. Find out more at



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