Breathe better to live better: Why breathing is your superpower

Dana Santas, a professional sports mind-body coach known as the Mobility Maker, shares a short, deep breathing exercise to help you relieve stress and lower blood pressure.

Posted: Jun 16, 2021 9:50 PM
Updated: Jun 16, 2021 9:50 PM

Breath is a powerful force — without it, there is no life.

But what you might not realize is that the quality of your breathing directly impacts the quality of your life.

Breathing plays a vital role in how you think, feel, rest and recover, and it even impacts your posture and movement.

In this four-part series, I'm using my nearly two decades as a breathing and mind-body coach in professional sports to explain breathing's powerful influence on our lives and share the same techniques I use with the pros that anyone can leverage in life-changing ways.

This first article sets the foundation by opening your eyes to the innate power you possess through your breath. Next, I will cover breathing's impact on posture, movement and chronic pain. In the third installment, I teach you ways to leverage your breathing for better sleep and overall recovery. And, lastly, you'll learn how to train yourself to breathe better for stress management and enhanced focus. Throughout the series, you will also find supporting commentary and advice from some of the athletes and coaches I work with in professional sports.

Respiration vs. breathing

Respiration is typically thought of as automatic. That's because it's part of our autonomic nervous system, meaning we don't have to think about it for it to happen, like digestion or circulation. Indeed, the metabolic process of respiration, which supplies oxygen to all the tissues of the body and removes carbon dioxide, is involuntary.

But the act of breathing — the movement pattern that powers respiration — is actually a voluntary movement that you can control at will. And because of respiration's paramount role in keeping you alive, the quality of your breathing can impact virtually all other systems of the body, which means YOU have the power to actively use your breathing to positively affect your health and wellness on many levels.

Understanding the power of breathing

Intentionally changing the cadence and mechanics of your breathing gives you the ability to influence other aspects of your nervous system. The way you breathe impacts your heart rate, blood pressure, stress response and even your brain state.

When you understand the power of your breathing, you can leverage a slower, more measured breathing pattern to tap the parasympathetic "rest and restore" aspect of your nervous system to help you calm down, increase your concentration, go to sleep and more.

Retired NHL All-star goaltender, Conn Smythe award winner, and Olympic athlete Tim Thomas, who I had the honor of training throughout his career, once said about his breathing, "It makes me feel like I can slow everything down ... like I'm just snatching pucks out of the air."

During games, the commentators would often make similar statements about Thomas' ability to anticipate puck position, saying it was like he had a superpower.

That's the power of breath awareness.

Putting breathing's power into practice

I had the privilege last year to start working as the breathing and mobility consultant to the New York Yankees. All-star outfielder Aaron Judge shared this about his experience training his breathing: "I try to be on the cutting edge of everything health and fitness to keep my body performing at its best. However, there is one simple thing that I had overlooked, until recently, that could help me with recovery, posture, movement and overall pain: breathing."

Judge and I began incorporating breathing drills into his training during the off-season. He said, "At first, I couldn't really understand how something I already do naturally could affect my performance and everyday life. I thought to myself, 'I breathe all day, how can five to 10 minutes of focused breathing make a difference?' Boy, was I wrong. I noticed a change and a feeling of relief instantly after the first couple warmups and sessions. Not only did I feel freedom in my torso and hips -- I almost felt taller, which might be hard to believe, as I am already 6'7"."

Consequently, Judge said of his breathing practice: "It has changed the way I prepare each day and each game I play."

The problem with faulty breathing

Unfortunately, many people are unknowingly stuck in a faulty, shallow, upper-chest-oriented breathing pattern. When this happens, your breathing superpower can actually work against you, pulling you more into the sympathetic "fight-or-flight" aspect of your nervous system, contributing to feelings of agitation, anxiety and depression.

Less-than-optimal breathing doesn't just adversely impact how you think and feel — because it's a movement pattern — it impacts your posture and mobility and can even contribute to chronic pain, particularly in your back, neck and shoulders. That's because your diaphragm, your primary breathing muscle, is also a fundamental postural and core muscle. And that's why, as Judge referenced in his experience, training your breathing can significantly enhance posture, movement and pain relief — but we'll cover that in detail in the next article in the series.

In addition to training athletes how to breathe better, I also lead presentations on breathing all over the world, and one of the most common questions I get asked is: "How did my breathing become faulty?"

There are myriad influences that can change your breathing, such as stress, illness, injury, activity and restrictive clothing or gear. Breathing is fundamental for life, so in situations that compromise optimal breathing, your body will figure out an adaptive pattern to take in oxygen to keep you alive. In most cases, that ends up being the upper chest-oriented, shallow pattern I mentioned above. In the context of those situations, that breathing pattern isn't faulty; it's a good thing, like an adaptive emergency mechanism.

However, it becomes a problem when the temporary circumstances that were compromising your breathing mechanics resolve but your breathing doesn't return to an optimal, deeper, slower pattern. This is why, by design, breathing is a voluntary action — and it's crucial to think of it that way. With this in mind, you can proactively take control of it when necessary to reset and restore optimal breathing to better serve you throughout all the experiences of your life.

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Why you should train your breathing

I began my career in pro sports as a yoga instructor before studying strength and conditioning, breathing biomechanics, and other high-performance training modalities. One of the fundamental practices of traditional yoga is pranayama, the practice of breath regulation.

The word "pranayama" is Sanskrit and is believed to have originated at least 4,000 years ago. The first part of the term, "prana," translates to life force in English; "yama" translates to control. So the breathing practices of pranayama are designed for control of your life force.

I often come back to my yogic roots when explaining the importance of training your breathing to people who are unaware of its power by telling them: Control your breathing. Control your life.

But you don't have to take my word for it.

"These small movements and controlled breaths were making a big impact on my posture. And mentally, I felt refreshed after each session, ready to start my day," said Judge, who touts the benefits for everyone: "The simple act of training your breathing is something that isn't just for athletes. It's something that everyone who works long hours at a desk or is on their feet all day or even those just interested in spending a few minutes away from everything to recharge should do."

If you want to learn more about the ways breathing can positively impact your own posture, movement, pain relief, recovery and mental state, be sure to read the upcoming articles in our series. Next week, I'll break down how you can train your breathing as an optimal movement pattern and will share some of the very same positional breathing drills I do with Judge and other professional athletes that can also work for you.

Whether you're an elite athlete preparing for competition or simply anyone trying to bring out your best self to perform in daily life, learning to optimize your breathing superpower is truly a game changer.

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