Controlled Breathing: What It Is and How to Practice It

Simply breathing isn't enough. We're going to explain the characteristics of controlled breathing, and we'll teach you how to take advantage of its benefits.
Controlled Breathing: What It Is and How to Practice It

Last update: 27 December, 2020

Controlled breathing brings the breathing process into our realm of consciousness and allows us to observe its characteristics such as rhythm, cadence, and depth. We train to learn how to practice it and modify it with the aim of achieving the goals we set forth.

Normally, our breathing is an automatic action that the brain controls and regulates via the brain stem, without us even realizing it. Breathing is influenced by emotional and psychological factors. Additionally, it’s a source of information for our endocrine system with respect to stress hormones secreted by the adrenal glands.

The characteristics of controlled breathing produce multiple benefits, some of which are immediate. Before we explain how to practice it, we’re going to give you a brief overview of the respiratory process.

Controlled breathing.

Physiology of respiration

The respiratory system has two functions. On the one hand, it must carry inhaled air to the alveoli in the lungs, where the oxygen it contains passes to the blood, as well as to remove carbon dioxide, or CO2, a product of cellular metabolism. CO2 is removed from the blood and leaves the body when we exhale.

This mechanism allows the cells to convert carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy for the body to function correctly.

Aerobic cellular respiration.

Subsystems of the respiratory process

  • System of airways: Made up of the nose, nasopharynx, larynx, trachea, primary bronchi, secondary bronchi, and terminal bronchioles. These passageways allow air to travel to and from the lungs.
  • Respiratory system: Formed by the alveolar sacs, the alveolar membrane, and arterial and venous capillaries. Gas exchange occurs here. CO2 is removed from blood in the arterial capillaries, and 02 enters blood in the venous capillaries.
  • Muscular system: Refers to the muscles involved in breathing. The most important is the diaphragm, although it involves the intercostals and clavicular muscles to a lesser degree.

The circulatory aspect of respiration requires the blood containing carbon dioxide (CO2) to reach the pulmonary capillaries in the alveolar sac, where it can be liberated from the blood. The faster blood is flowing, the more gas exchange takes place.

Since circulation leaves from the right ventricle, which is weaker and less muscular than the left, most of the blood flow is directed to the base of the lungs, which is, paradoxically, the worst ventilated zone.

Types of breathing

According to the location of breathing, we can divide it into abdominal or diaphragmatic, thoracic (costal) breathing, or clavicular breathing.

Abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing

In this type of breathing the diaphragm descends, leaving a space at the base of the lungs which increases their capacity. It’s the most efficient type of breathing. However, it’s the least utilized.

Thoracic breathing

In thoracic breathing, the rib cage works as a barrier. It marks a limit of the central expansion of the lungs, and for this reason it isn’t as efficient as abdominal breathing.

Clavicular breathing

This is the least efficient type of breathing. We can say that it’s residual breathing, because it encompasses the smallest part of the lungs and its expansion mechanism is very limited.

Abdominal breathing.

Controlled breathing allows for full utilization of all types of breathingIts functionality is based on abdominal breathing. It utilizes thoracic breathing to the fullest extent, and also includes clavicular breathing, despite its small role in the respiratory process.

Ahead, we’re going to provide the details on what controlled breathing consists of, its characteristics, and how to practice it.

Features of controlled breathing

Controlled breathing allows us to be conscious that we’re breathing, which is the foundation for practicing it. Therefore, we can vary its characteristics and train to practice it. We make ourselves aware of the breathing process, and influence the rhythm and how deeply we inhale, adapting it to maximize the benefit.

When practicing controlled breathing, we take between 8 and 12 breaths per minute. It’s a calm way of breathing that distributes the air all throughout the lungs and facilitates gas exchange through the capillaries.

In addition to these benefits, it affects and regulates stress mechanisms by way of the endocrine system and the sympathetic nervous system.

Subconsciously, the mind relates fast, shallow breathing with danger or threat to the individual, and therefore sets off stress mechanisms through the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands.

Shallow, fast breathing is the type that is observed in patients who are severely illThis is referred to as “ICU” breathing. This type of rapid, shallow breathing acidifies our internal environment and has a negative impact at the physical and cerebral level, which can complicate a patient’s prognosis.

When we practice controlled breathing, we can vary the speed and depth, adjusting to moderately deep and slow breaths. Our subconscious interprets this as a state of peace and calm.

A woman thinking.

Moderate, slow breathing triggers endocrine processes that reduce stress hormones (mainly cortisol and adrenaline) and stimulates the production of  the so-called “happiness” hormones: dopamine and serotonin.

How to practice controlled breathing

In the beginning, to correctly perform controlled breathing, we’ll need to focus all of our conscious attention. With practice, this will become habit and will only be necessary in times of stress, anxiety, fear etc.

Techniques for practicing controlled breathing

Posture

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed.
  2. Place the palm of your right hand on your abdomen, and of the left hand on your thorax.
  3. If this position is uncomfortable, you can practice the exercise standing up or lying down.
Different postures.

Breathing

  1. Inhale and exhale through your nose. If this is difficult, you can breathe through your mouth, but it is less recommendable.
  2. Take in air slowly, trying to direct it to your abdomen, so your abdomen rises and expands when you inhale, and contracts when you exhale. You’ll notice that your right hand will move rhythmically as air enters and exits.
  3. Take in air as you count to 3, and exhale after counting to 3. At first, it will require all your attention and can be somewhat difficult, but little by little it will become easier.
  4. You can count to 1 after inhaling, holding the air in and then exhaling.

It’s best to adopt a breathing rhythm that’s comfortable for you, slower or faster according to what feels best for you.

To incorporate the technique, once you’ve practiced a few times, you can add variations. You can do the exercises while standing when you’re not busy, in bed before going to sleep, or right when you wake up.

Once you get the hang of it, you can take deeper breaths and pause longer between inhaling and exhaling.

Some benefits of controlled breathing

Physical

  • Improves metabolic efficiency: more energy and vitality
  • Improves oxygenation of the body, and especially, the mind
  • Reduces muscle tension, general pain, and migraines
  • Promotes better sleep and reduces fatigue
  • Improves physical performance and output

Mental

  • Increases self-esteem and improves decision making
  • Improves concentration and performance
  • Strengthens emotional equilibrium and boosts creativity
  • Helps to clear negative or drifting thoughts
  • Promotes relaxation and better sleep

Additionally, there are other benefits involving emotional, spiritual, and social health. We can conclude by saying that the knowledge of the breathing process and incorporating controlled breathing into our routine will improve many aspects of our lives, and will increase our energy levels and sense of well-being.

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