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How to Control Your Breathing for Better Physical & Mental Performance

Abby Corriveau teaching MovNat

Everything starts with breathing.

Breathing is a natural movement. Not the motion of your body through space, but an internal movement your body needs to do from the moment you are born to the moment you die. Most of us take it for granted, but ask anyone with breathing issues and they will tell you that they would give anything to regain healthy breathing.

The Environmental Protection Agency says, “the average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day.” That’s a lot of movement that can either improve or worsen your quality of life. Unsurprisingly, poor breathing patterns can result in all kinds of health problems and physical dysfunctions (e.g. pain, weakness, immobility, etc.). Not to mention that without breathing normally, the body and mind become extremely stressed, sometimes to a state of absolute panic, which is a feeling most of us have experienced one way or another in our life.

Here’s something important to reflect on: just like any movement, breathing is a skill. It means that, while everyone who’s alive is breathing, one can breathe efficiently…or not. Because it is a skill, it can be practiced mindfully, and improved, with absolutely phenomenal positive effects on your quality of life. In fact, making breathing a skill is one of the most important and potent ways to improve your movement and physical performance. The benefits carry over to every area of life!

Today, we want to learn diaphragmatic breathing, which is fundamental to breath control and efficiency. There are other forms of breathing patterns which are covered in the MovNat curriculum (and also in my book, The Practice of Natural Movement), but this drill below is one of the foundational skills.

Before we begin, here’s a note from MovNat’s Performance Director, Danny Clark, which provides a great summary about the importance of diaphragmatic breathing.

“Deep, controlled breathing is essential to movement performance and efficiency, and it pays out great dividends once mastered. Yet, breathing with control is a skill that few people practice, which is a shame because proper breathing supports mindfulness, relaxation, and movement efficiency. It also reinforces the perception of proper posture, helps the body to relax, and can even provide a mechanical advantage during physical effort. On the other hand, improper breathing will cause the body to create unnecessary tension that competes with our attention and limits our performance. Thus, mindful breathing is also a great tool for improving your mental focus.” – Danny Clark, MovNat Master Instructor

Now that you know why diaphragmatic breathing is so important, let’s start practicing.

How to Breathe Efficiently Into Your Diaphragm

Note: This drill can be practiced while standing, sitting, or laying down. Just make sure you’re comfortable.

Place one hand on your chest, the other on your abdomen, just below your sternum, on the solar plexus, or diaphragm area. You will use your hands to observe what parts of your lungs you are breathing into.

So, just feel and observe what happens naturally. Where is the movement taking place? In the chest? Abdomen? Back? Sides? Everywhere? Where do you feel it the most?

breathing1Let’s learn to control where the breathing takes place at a mechanical level. You want to be able to use your diaphragm only (abdomen area) and not your chest (the opposite is easy for everyone), which can be challenging at first. Start breathing OUT by contracting your abdominal muscles. As you do, the diaphragm relaxes as your belly pushes IN. Breathe out all the way until you cannot push in any further. It doesn’t matter if you breathe out through the nose or mouth.

breathing2Time to breathe in. The common reflex is to inflate your chest and make it big. Resist this. Instead, avoid any voluntary movement from your chest and upper respiratory muscles (see photo below). Of course, chest breathing is very useful in movement when intensity demands it. But your ultimate goal should be to learn how to dissociate and select various ways of breathing, at will. Today, focus on your diaphragm and abdomen area.

breathing3Now that we have made room for new air, it is time to breathe in! The breathing in we want is that the diaphragm contracts, pushing your belly OUT as you inhale fully. It won’t show your six packs abs, but it is essential to learn to breathe in a relaxed manner.

When you breathe in and you’re just sitting or standing, you don’t need the superficial layer of your abdominal muscles to contract. If there is a slight motion in your chest, it is the sole result of your deep inhale, not the result of a voluntary use of other respiratory muscles besides the diaphragm. This time, keep your mouth closed and inhale through the nose.

breathing4Once you start to feel and control your diaphragmatic breathing, you may release the lower hand and keep only the upper one to keep the chest in check. Then you can release both.

breathing5
A breathing drill is just that, a breathing drill. The real goal is to improve your breathing as you move and perform physically (and in any situation of life for that matter), especially when intensity comes into play.

breathing6
Practicing controlled, ample, powerful diaphragmatic breathing is best trained when abdominal muscles are forcefully contracted. A great way to do this is by practicing the same exercise while sitting with your feet elevated off the floor.

Next Steps

At MovNat, we teach that breathing should be trained as a standalone skill and then also during other natural movements. If you start with very basic drills like the one above, where you’re standing, sitting, or laying on your back, you can begin to experience what efficient deep breathing feels like in a controlled context. Once you’ve learned how to fill the whole abdomen (i.e. breathing deeply into your belly, ribs, and back), you can start training your breath during movements, too. Begin with some of the basic Ground Movements and positions (sitting, kneeling, lying, etc.), then progressing to simple Get Ups and Crawling techniques, and working up from there.

Here are some additional progressions and variations to explore in your practice:

  • Practice rhythm, for instance breathing in and out increasingly fast, or alternate fast inhale and slow exhale, slow inhale and fast exhale etc…without losing your pattern and getting confused, or bringing the chest into your breathing practice.
  • If you lose your ability to control your breath while in motion, then the standing drill is practically useless, as it doesn’t transfer to actual movement. Practice transitions from varied sitting positions to varied crawling techniques, very slowly at first, then increasingly fast. Keep practicing your diaphragmatic breath control with other movement skills, at varied levels of intensity, until you feel that it becomes an integral part of your movement.

Final Words

Breathing comes naturally, but breathing efficiently takes practice. Once you’ve developed a basic level of competency, everything gets easier – from running to lifting to resting, and everything in between. Many people don’t spend much time thinking about, let alone practicing their breathing. But a few drills practiced regularly combined with the awareness of your breathing during the rest of your Natural Movement practice will yield benefits for a lifetime.

Related Posts

Note: This article contains material from Erwan Le Corre’s book, The Practice of Natural Movement.

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Improve Your Fitness & Movement Naturally

At MovNat, we teach Natural Movement from the ground up – starting with the most rudimentary skills like breathing and sitting positions, and working our way up to more challenging, athletic movements, such as jumping and climbing skills. Every natural movement we teach is inherently natural and has a practical purpose. It’s not merely about physical conditioning. Although, improved health, fitness, mobility, and conditioning are natural byproducts of a Natural Movement practice.

If you’d like to learn how to breathe and move naturally and efficiently, join us for a MovNat Level 1 Certification or a MovNat Workshop. We hold events all around the world. Or, find a MovNat Certified Trainer or Gym in your area. We also offer MovNat Online Coaching as an alternative to live instruction and a Natural Movement Fundamentals E-Course.

Most people know that they should be more physically active. Some even recognize the incredible value in a system like MovNat. But they struggle with actually implementing natural movement into their daily lives. That’s why we work closely with people from all walks of life to help them move better, get healthier and stronger, and discover their true potential with natural movement fitness. It’s also why we work extensively with health and fitness professionals who understand the value of this new paradigm and are eager to start implementing it with their clients.

So, if you’re ready to take your movement practice to the next level, this is your chance. Please join our community and check out an event near you soon.

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