A Breath of Fresh Air

Breathing; we breathe in and breathe out, it’s just something we do naturally, right? 

The short answer is, yes. But, there is more to breathing than most people may think.

As a wind musician growing up, I heard a lot of phrases that had to do with breathing. “Use your air.” “Control your breath.” “Focus your air.” And the one that was the most confusing to me, “Breathe from your diaphragm.”

Breathe from my diaphragm? Doesn't my air come from my lungs?

Of course, being the type of personality who wanted to know it all, I asked my band director. He told me that our lungs do not have the capability of expanding on their own. I accepted this reasoning, but didn’t really understand how it worked or how to “control my air” better until I got to college.

My first year participating in collegiate marching band, I had an assistant director who talked a lot about breathing and “controlling your air.” He gave us a packet, an excerpt from a book he had written about musicians and controlling their air. In this packet, he talked about how the diaphragm pulls down on the lungs and allows them to fill with air. When he told us we were only using 50-70% of our lung capacity, I thought he was exaggerating.

Of course, I did some research after the fact and as it turns out, it’s true. Here’s a little bit about how breathing works:

The most prominent muscle used in breathing is our diaphragm, along with intercostal (rib) muscles, abdominal muscles, and some muscles in the neck area.[1] When the diaphragm relaxes the air releases from the lungs.[2] Even when we are breathing correctly and really pushing our breathing to the limit as we do in music, while working out, or performing strenuous activities, we only use up to about 80% of our lung capacity. Not only that, but around the time we turn 35, our lung capacity starts to decrease.[3]

In this class, we did an exercise to really feel how much of our lungs weren’t being used:

  • First, everyone sat up tall in a chair and exhaled all of their air.
  • Then, we bent all the way forward ensuring that our legs were pushing against our diaphragm and exhaling to let more air out.
  • When we felt like there was no more air left and were completely folded over, we were told to push just a little bit more out and hold it there for a second.
  • Then we sat up, still holding that emptiness in our lungs, opened our mouths and relaxed and sure enough felt a small intake of air.

That small intake of air is just a fraction of the air we don’t get rid of when we exhale naturally. Not only were we not getting rid of all of our air in our breathing, but we also weren’t expanding our lungs to their fullest potential.

As a wind musician, being able to improve my lung capacity was important so that I could hold out all of the beautiful phrases of music in the pieces I was playing.

Another exercise we did for this was to take a deep breath and once you had that deep breath, hold it and take extra “sips” of air in while holding your breath. The first time I did that exercise, I swear I must have been able to take 8 extra sips of air.

These exercises proved to me that I was not utilizing my lung capacity enough. To work on this, I’ve found other resources from various sources. Three of my favorites are this 5-step exercise from the Lung Institute, a lung capacity exercise for singers, and another from the book, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life.[4-6]

Thankfully, using these exercises along with some others, I have been able to expand my lung capacity and help my students do the same.

Understanding that there are different types of breathing helps musicians, and can help you while you’re exercising as well. In learning and researching this, I have found that there are 4 different types of breathing:

Quiet breathing

Quiet breathing doesn’t require any thought; it is the breathing that your body does naturally.

Deep breathing

In deep breathing, the diaphragm must contract; the air naturally exhales when you relax.

Shallow breathing

Shallow breathing is when the rib muscles contract; air naturally exhales when you relax.

Forced breathing

This type of breathing occurs when being physically active or when controlling your air, like when you’re singing. This is also called controlled breathing, or “Hyperpnea.”[7]

Learning to control your air takes time and practice, but once you have control of your air, you can start to expand your capacity. From there, you can run longer distances without needing to stop, work harder without becoming winded, and even play 4-8 extra measures of music without needing that “emergency breath” you marked in there.

For those of you who are not musicians or exercising consistently, learning how to control your breath is still important as breathing correctly can help you in other ways as well. Proper breathing has shown to have many health benefits. Physically, it can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure, as well as increase your blood oxygen levels. Mentally, it can also help you think clearer and relieve stress.[8]

Even Apple has jumped on board in recognizing the importance of proper breathing, helping their Apple Watch users breathe better and relieve stress using their “Breathe” app.  The “Breathe” app is a great tool that I use (when it’s not asking me to do it in the middle of teaching), to regulate my heart rate and get an overall sense of calm and relaxation.

“Breathe” allows you to do some controlled deep breathing for a specified amount of time (1-5 minutes). It also monitors your heart rate and gives you a summary of each session. If you are an Apple user like myself, I highly suggest you give this app a try as a basic break out into breathing.

I hope that in reading this, you now have a better understanding of how your breathing works and the benefits that better breathing can have. Whether you’re a musician, an athlete, or neither of these, you can still take steps to help keep your breathing healthier for longer. I invite you to try some of these exercises to enhance your everyday life force.

Breathe well, friends.

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