But first, you’ll need to understand a little about what you’re actually doing when you breathe. Some bells and whistles aside: There’s a very big muscle at the bottom of your chest cavity – it’s basically your chest cavity’s floor and your stomach’s ceiling and it’s called your “diaphragm”. The diaphragm is dome shaped, so when it contracts the floor of your chest cavity lowers, pulling air into your lungs in the same way that air would be pulled into an accordion if you turned it sideways and pulled the bottom side down. When your diaphragm relaxes, the floor of your chest cavity rises, pushing air out of your lungs. The essential point here is that when you’re breathing, a very large muscle at the top of your stomach is doing repetitive, resistance, work; so when you practice breathing, you should be aware of that and follow the principles you’d use in a gym if you were doing the same with weights.
Now if a personal trainer had you do, say, overhead presses with a barbell, one thing they’d want to make sure of is that you don’t stop lifting until you’ve straightened your arms completely; so, when practicing breathing, you similarly want to fully contract your diaphragm, that is to say, you want to keep pulling air in until there’s no room for any more. Next, your trainer would want to make sure you don’t just immediately drop the weight, but rather that you hold it up for a little while; when practicing breathing, this corresponds to not immediately releasing the air but holding it in for a bit. How long? I recommend holding as long as you can without feeling like you need to rush your exhale. If you start to feel like you need air, you’re holding too long, but try to get as close to that point as you can without actually reaching it. Next, when you do release the weight, your trainer would want to make sure you don’t drop it suddenly but, rather, let it down as slowly and smoothly as possible. And, of course, with regard to breathing, this means that you shouldn’t exhale quickly or spasmodically; like releasing a weight (because that’s exactly what you’re doing!) your exhale should be as slow and smooth as you can make it. Next, when you’re ready to lift the weight again, your trainer would want you not to quickly jerk the weight up but, rather, to lift it as slowly and smoothly as you can; and, similarly, when you’re ready to inhale, do so as slowly and smoothly as possible. If you follow these principles when practicing breathing, you will increase your diaphragm's strength and your control over it through its full range, just like you’d be doing for the muscles involved in an overhead press when done correctly.
Finally, if you’re trainer is very attentive, they will want to make sure that you’re not tensing any muscles unnecessarily when you lift the barbell. This is very important with regard to breathing exercises since, when you ask someone to focus on their breath, they will almost invariably start tensing the muscles around their nose and throat. Again, when you breathe, you are essentially pulling a weight inward and the main muscle is right above your stomach, so the pulling in should come from there and not from your face; when doing breathing exercises make it a point to keep your face, nasal passages and throat, serene and relaxed, neither hindering nor helping the upper stomach pull the weight in. And of course, your trainer would want your form to be correct and, with regard to breathing, this means you ought to breath in an out through your nose – no mouth breathing! Your nasal passages slow your breath down as well as filtering and warming incoming air. If you’re breathing through your mouth, you're breathing is almost certainly too quick and shallow.
So, in sum, when practicing your breath:
1. Imagine you are pulling a weight in and out through your nose with a muscle right above your stomach; pull the weight in as slowly and smoothly as you can; don’t stop until you can’t pull it in any further; hold it as long as you can but not to the point where you feel like you need air; release the weight as slowly and smoothly as you can, repeat.
2. Keep your face, nasal passages, and throat serene and relaxed, neither hindering nor helping your upper stomach pull the air in.
If you spend 10 minutes a day, 3 or 4 times a week lying on your back working on your breathing in this manner, besides conditioning your diaphragm, you will also start to become more aware of your breath in everyday circumstances. And you may be surprised at the beneficial effects to both your mood (see 9/24 post) and energy level.