by Lisa Elaine Held
When it comes to breathing skills, Belisa Vranich, PsyD, doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. “I’d be alarmed if I were you,” she says matter-of-factly after wrapping a measuring tape around my ribs and measuring my vital lung capacity.
The good news? I can fix the dysfunctional, shallow way I breathe—and I’m in excellent hands.
Dr. Vranich is a psychologist turned breathing educator who’s worked with elite athletes to expecting moms on how to revamp their most basic function. She teaches her classes around the world and is the author of Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Fueling Your Body & Brain (and is on the advisory board for Philosophy’s mental health initiative, Hope & Grace).
And she’s about to show me (and you?) how to get a little bit (okay, a lot) better at breathing.
Okay, what’s wrong with the way you’re breathing?
While breathing is something we know how to do at birth, Dr. Vranich says that most of have picked up some really bad habits since then.
If, when you inhale, your breath feels like it travels from the bottom of your lungs to the top and your chest and shoulders move upward, you’re a “vertical breather,” like 95 percent of adults (and me!), says Dr. Vranich. That means you only use a fraction of your lungs to take in air, and lift—er, strain—your shoulders and neck.
Your body also associates shallow breaths with stress (think the way you breathe when you feel panicky), sending messages to your brain that raise hormones related to weight gain, poor sleep, and more. So you’re essentially stressing out your body.
How to do it right
Horizontal breath, on the other hand, uses the muscle in your body made for breathing, the diaphragm, and allows you to expand out, filling the biggest part of your lungs with air.
When Dr. Vranich takes a deep breath, for example, her entire abdomen expands outward like a cylindrical balloon being slowly filled with helium, and then deflates until every last drop of air is gone.
Why oxygen is really everything
So what’s the big deal? Dr. Vranich insists not getting enough oxygen is most likely messing with your health in a million unseen ways. An observation she loves to reference is fromArthur Guyton, MD, a pioneer in research related to the body’s need for oxygen.
“He says if you look at any emotional suffering or physical pain under a microscope at a cellular level, there’s always lack of oxygen,” she marvels. “Everybody thinks, ‘I get winded, I have to do more cardio.’ Well, why not just put more oxygen in your blood? Because the whole reason your heart is pumping is to get oxygen throughout your body.”
What changing my crappy way of breathing did for me
I’m deeply skeptical of any solution that claims to fix nearly everything that ails you, but as soon as Dr. Vranich began to lead me through breathing exercises that converted me to “belly breathing,” I was hooked.
I could immediately feel how my shallow, vertical breath induced stress, while the expansive, belly breath sent calming signals throughout my body. I focused on horizontal breathing on my long runs, too, and, while I can’t prove a definite link, I ran a half-marathon and a 15K faster than I ever have before.
One downside: I did often feel self-conscious, like people could see I was sticking my stomach out over and over, which is one reason Dr. Vranich says so many of us, who learn to “suck it in” at an early age, pick up the dysfunctional pattern in the first place. But there’s a silver lining.
“Once you start breathing from the lower part of your body, your core and abs get incredibly strong,” she promises. At the very least, toned abs certainly seems like a promise everyone can get behind. —Lisa Elaine Held