Efficient Breathing is essential for your Vocal Health and Performance. 👩🏼🎤 In this episode of MoveMedics TV, we dive deep into understanding how your diaphragm and lungs work and bust the most stubborn myth about the diaphragm. 🙅🏻♀️ We look at what efficient breathing really is, what inefficient breathing is and why that happens. 🤔 I also share 5 tips to help you optimise your breathing for your voice use and singing. 👍🏼
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This is part two of the Body-Voice Connection Mini Series and we are talking about the Breath. We will talk about breathing efficiency, bust the biggest myth about the diaphragm, and I will also give you five tips to help you optimise your breathing. Ready? Let’s jump in.
Hi, I’m Selina, physio from MoveMedics, welcome to my channel. I help people improve their mobility for fun and function, with special focus on doing the splits, backbend, and singing. If they sound good to you, please subscribe to my channel and make sure you ding that notification bell so you don’t miss my new videos when they come out.
Last time when we talked about the larynx I told you that your vocal folds vibrate to create sounds, what I haven’t mentioned was that it needs air to vibrate and the air of course comes from your breath. This is why your breathing efficiency is important for both your vocal health and performance.
When we talk about breathing efficiency, most people would probably think “Ooh, I know! I gotta use my diaphragm!” So let’s start with the diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is a muscle, it’s huge, it’s dome shape and it lives across the bottom of your rib cage. When it contracts, it descends and in doing so draws air inside your lungs, then it simply relaxes and air leaves your lungs. Now this whole process is taken care of by your brain, it is on autopilot which means that so long as you are alive and breathing, you are using your diaphragm, whether you like it or not.
So efficient breathing isn’t so much about learning to use your diaphragm, from my perspective as a physio, I am thinking about how well could you draw air inside your lungs? And how much effort and energy does that cost you per breath? And can you sustain it for the duration of your activities?
And in terms of voice use and singing, it means that can you draw the right volume of air in and control the release of it depending on the vocal technique you choose to use? And can you sustain this for the duration of your vocal task? And also for the long term?
When I assess someone’s breathing there are two specific things I would do. First I will have to listen to their chest.
Now your lungs isn’t just one big balloon, you have two lungs, the left lung and the right, the left lung has two lobes, upper and lower, the right lung has three, upper, middle, lower. Inside these lobes you have minuscule air sacs, the alveoli, you have a few hundred million of these little air sacs and this is where gas exchange happens, oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide comes out, so naturally you want to use all of the lobes, all the little air sacs for efficient gas exchange.
Now when we listen to your chest we put the stethoscope on different parts of your chest, the front and the back, on the side, and we are specifically listening for the sounds coming from each lobe of your lungs.
What I should hear is just a quiet shushing of air coming in sh, going out sh, and it should sound the same everywhere, so if the breath sounds is quieter down the bases then I know for some reason this person isn’t drawing air to the bases of the lungs, breath sounds can even be absent down the bases and that is not a good thing.
The next thing I would do will be to have a look at where the movement of your breathing comes from. What I want to see is the gentle rising of your belly as you breathe in, and the gentle falling of your belly as you breathe out.
I also want to see your bottom ribs flaring up and out as you breathe in, and going back down and in as you breathe out.
Now when your diaphragm contracts and descends your belly moves out to make way for that to happen, so when I can see that your belly is rising I know your belly is doing that, and when I can also see your bottom ribs flare up and out then I know that you are able to draw air down towards the bases, inflating those lower lobes which then cause those lower ribs to flare up and out in this bucket handle manoeuvre.
Then I will get you to take progressively bigger breaths to see how you inflate your lungs. So we start with a regular breath, a slightly bigger breath, even bigger breath, and the biggest breath you can take, and what I should be able to see is you starting with the gentle rising of the belly and the lower ribs, and the more air you drill, draw in, the more chest movement, the more ribcage movement we will see, and as you fill up more and more, we should also see the sternum rising up and as you breathe out everything just very easy and gently falls back down.
Now when we can see that the belly is rising and the ribs are flaring, that is the most efficient pattern of breathing, and if I can see that guess what I write in your file? I would write diaphragmatic breathing tick tick, we denote, we write down, we record the pattern that we observe and if I observe an inefficient pattern, I would write down that pattern.
So this is potentially where some of the confusion comes from, if you tell someone that you are not doing diaphragmatic breathing but doing something else, you can see why they could interpret that as “Ooh, I’m not using my diaphragm!” But now you know that is not true, so long as you are breathing, you are using your diaphragm.
Of the inefficient patterns of breathing, one common one is the paradoxical pattern for breathing and that means the opposite to what I have just described happens, your belly goes in as you breathe in, and comes out as you breathe out.
Another really common inefficient pattern is the upper chest pattern for breathing and it looks like this.
The breath is really shallow and the predominant movement you see is from the chest heaving up and down. Now if you have a shallow breath, you’re really just using the top lobes of your lungs, you are missing out on the awesomeness of using all the lobes, which means that your gas exchange isn’t as efficient as it can be.
Also it is very energy costly to heave the chest up and down and you’re using your neck muscles to do it. Your neck is primarily for mobility, it lets you look around for food and look out for danger.
Yes, it can help you breathe, they are the accessories muscles for breathing, which means that they are the back up, the reinforcement you bring in when you are desperate, and we see this in athletes all the time, at the end of a race, after they have exerted maximum effort, you often see them walking around with their hands on their head, on their hips, and they might even bend over and put their hands on the legs, they do that because they are fixing their shoulder girdles to make it easier for the neck to heave the chest up and down because they are desperately trying to catch their breath, so that’s something we do when we have to and if you do that as your regular day-to-day way of breathing, it is super energy demanding and you can also imagine if your neck has got to go above and beyond and do more than it really has to, could that be why it gets cranky with you every now and then?
If they are so inefficient then why do people do it?
Inefficient patterns of breathing is very common in people with chronic respiratory conditions and these are common.
Inefficient patterns of breathing, especially the upper chested pattern is very common in people with stress and anxiety and these are prevalent as well. I experience them myself and I do catch myself when I’m stressed that I’m breathing shallowly or I might even be holding my breath and I have to remind myself “Chill girl. Belly breaths”
Inefficient patterns of breathing can also be the result of certain lifestyle choices and habits, for example there are people who believe that they need to keep their core activated all the time, which is not true and I strongly encourage you to check this video out where I tell you all about why that is not the case and you should not be doing it, and some people also choose to keep the belly sucked in so it looks flat.
Now if I’m keeping myself all activated and sucked in and flat here and I try to breathe. There is no way that my belly can move out of the way to let my diaphragm descend properly, and if my diaphragm can’t do that, there is no way I can draw air down towards the bases of my lungs to inflate the lower lobes, which also means that my gas exchange cannot be as efficient as it possibly can be, so not only is this inefficient breathing, it is also very tiresome to keep all that muscle contracting all day, not to mention it is horrible for your pelvic floor!
So how can we optimise our breathing? I have five tips for you today.
Firstly, if it is related to a respiratory condition you want to make sure that it is well managed, for example if you have asthma and it has been some time since you’ve had your Asthma Action Plan reviewed, then perhaps it’s time to check in with your GP.
Secondly, if it is related to stress and anxiety, we want to develop good, effective stress management strategy, and we access all the resources that we need when we need, so check in with your therapist, with your psychologist and discuss these things with them. For me, I have things I do every day so that I hopefully don’t end up in a hole. And I also have a note in my computer that literally is called “When In Hole” and it has a list of things that I can do to help me out when I feel like I’m in a hole.
Thirdly, if it is because you have developed an undesirable habit, then I would encourage you to start becoming mindful and develop an awareness of what you are doing, where in your body, and when you notice that you are pulling your belly in, the most important thing to do is to not judge yourself, there is absolutely no need to shame and judge yourself, none of those rubbish, all you have to do is notice, be mindful “Oh. I have been pulling my belly in for a while and now I choose to relax”.
Fourthly, we can of course practice relax efficient breathing but you can’t optimise anything unless you know your baseline first, do you actually even need it or are you just fine? So what I would do is I will show you in future episodes how to observe your breathing and then once we know what’s going on there then we can work on refining and practicing relaxed efficient breathing.
And lastly your respiratory efficiency is of course intimately related to your cardiovascular fitness, so you want to be doing regular huff and puff exercises. How much exercises do you need? You can check out this video where I tell you all about that.
In the next episode we will talk about your body and your voice and putting it all together, but until then if you have any questions about today’s episode, leave me a comment and I will do my best to help you out.
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I want to thank you very much for hanging out with me today, I appreciate your lot and I look forward to seeing you in the next episode.
And until then, thank you so much for watching and Be Free In Your Movement™