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  • Writer's pictureJayne Hill

Exercises to strengthen your breathing

After you’ve recovered from covid or a chesty cold, you might find that you’re still wheezing. When you feel breathless, you try to take bigger, deeper inhales. While that may sound logical, it’s not actually a useful way to deliver more oxygen to your body and you could start to feel anxious when it doesn’t work. That’s double trouble because stress hormones change your breathing pattern so it’s higher and faster – getting you ready to fight or run. You can see how you could find yourself trapped into a cycle of anxiety and feeling breathless.

And… exhale…

I know. Just reading about struggling to breathe can make you feel anxious.

The magic exhale

Did you notice that I didn’t suggest you inhale? That’s because your exhale is the key to breaking out of a breathless/anxious cycle.

It’s all about balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. Your body monitors carbon dioxide levels to know when you need to breathe in. If the receptors that monitor carbon dioxide levels are too sensitive (low tolerance to carbon dioxide), then you breathe in too soon and there’s less chance for you to absorb oxygen and less is given to your muscles and tissues. When you have high tolerance to carbon dioxide, then your blood vessels widen, there’s plenty of time to deliver the oxygen effectively around your body.

Remember it has to happen gently and comfortably or you’ll trigger stress hormones and you’re back on the merry-go-round.

Carbon Dioxide Tolerance Test

I’ve seen two versions of this test. Pick the one that feels best for you. You need a timer. The one on your phone will be perfect.

Test 1

  • Take a normal inhale.

  • Exhale normally.

  • Start the timer.

  • See how long you can comfortably hold your breath – without strain

  • Your next inhale should be smooth and comfortable. If you gasp for air through your mouth, then you held for longer than you should.

An average time is about 20 seconds.

If you have high blood pressure, heart problems or glaucoma do test 2 instead.

Test 2

  • Take 4 full breaths

  • At the top of the 4th breath inhale (totally full), start a timer and exhale as slowly as possible. Stretch out the exhale for as long as you can.

  • Stop the timer when your air runs out, or you need to inhale.

More than 80 seconds: Elite

60-80 seconds: Advanced

40-60 seconds: Intermediate

20-40 seconds: Average

Less than 20 seconds: Not so good

Whatever the result, you can improve it with regular, gentle practice!

Deepen your breathing with exercises to increase carbon dioxide tolerance

You need to slow down your breathing and increase the time you take to exhale comfortably without causing stress. We’ve already seen how focusing on your breathing (and a struggle to breathe) can be stressful, so you need to take this slowly and gently. Practice consistently with patient kindness.

A little and often goes a long way here.

Relax. When you’re relaxing, your breath lengthens automatically, all by itself. What a good reason to practice more than once a week in class! Let me know if you’d like a link to one of the online relaxation sessions.

You also need to learn to use and relax your intercostal muscles (the ones that criss cross between your ribs) and be able to relax and actively use your diaphragm appropriately. Yoga postures and practice can help you learn how to do that.

Diaphragmatic breathing. Lie down on your back with your hands relaxed on your tummy and relax back into the support of the floor. Follow your breathing and notice where your body moves with each breath. Settle your awareness into the space under your hands and notice if that place moves when you breathe. There’s no need to actively move the space, just notice. You might discover that as you relax your abdomen moves with your breath as you breathe with your diaphragm.

Any breathing practice that restricts the space to exhale will extend your breathing and increase your carbon dioxide tolerance.

Nose breathing. Breathing through your mouth dries out your mouth. It irritates your lungs. Inhaling through your mouth produces stress hormones. But nose breathing is soothing for your lungs and your nervous system (this is a whole other blog!) and slows down your exhale.

Bubble breathing. This is my favourite! Inhale through your nose, make a tiny parting between soft lips and slowly blow away your exhale. Keep your face and shoulders relaxed. You can imagine or actually blow soap bubbles. I find it very calming, especially sitting on the back doorstep blowing bubbles after a bit of day.

Straw breathing. Not so much my favourite. Inhale through your nose, then exhale through a straw.

Segmented breathing. Add pauses into your breathing. Inhale half way, pause, inhale the rest of the way, then exhale half way and pause, exhale the rest of the way. You can add more pauses in if you like, so long as you feel comfortable.

Humming. Inhale through your nose (are you spotting that’s a pattern yet?). Gently hum your breath out. This breath comes with a bonus as it stimulates your vagus nerve which is relaxing your nervous system. Maybe that’s why, after a few breaths, I notice my exhale beginning to lengthen.

Counted breathing. If you like numbers, then this one might suit you better than the free form practices above. Do be careful of getting involved with too much analysis or pushing to ‘progress’. Start with inhale and exhale of the same length – maybe count to four as your inhale and four as you exhale. When that feels comfortable, begin to count a little further with your exhale – maybe to six or perhaps after some practice to eight. Keep the feeling of a relaxed, soft exhale. I can’t emphasise that enough. Forcing your exhale is just more stress hormones.

Ujjaii breathing. This is ‘victorious’ in Sanskrit and romantically known as the breath of the ocean as it makes a soft sound. Sadly, it’s now known as the Darth Vader breath because it sounds a bit like him too. I need to produce a video to show you how, but use it if it’s a familiar practice already.

You can strengthen the muscles you need to breathe.

Aerobic exercise. Get a little sweaty every day! I’m not saying you need to run or do a gym class if that’s not your thing. You can walk a bit faster until you’re just getting out of breath instead. But remember you need to keep breathing through your nose.

Resistance training. Yep. You can buy weight training devices for your lungs. I’m not big on having to buy stuff for your practice so after racking my brain I came up with using balloons instead. You know that feeling when you first try to get a balloon to inflate? That’s resistance training. Take care though. You can’t regulate the pressure from the balloon, but the devices can give graded resistance.

Kapalbhati. This is known as the shining skull breath. It’s a powerful cleansing practice that can clear your lungs rather than a breathing practice. It’s not for everyone and the instruction needs a video, and ideally some in-person time to check your technique. Come and see me if you’d like to learn.

In addition remember that your lungs need to be lubricated, so make sure you drink plenty of warm liquids (not chilled) and keep the air around you moist. A humidifier, diffuser or a simple saucer of water on a radiator can help. Open your windows and refresh the air indoor regularly too.

There are so many more breathing practices – alternate nostril breathing, breathing ratio techniques. I don’t have time to list them all. See you class to learn the rest!

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