Diaphragmatic Breathing for Healthy Aging
You’ve seen them. The people in church or at a concert who enthusiastically sing along, their shoulders rising each time they take a deep breath. While they believe raising their shoulders enables them to take a deep, full breath, nothing is farther than the truth.
Using the shoulders, upper chest, neck and back muscles to inhale creates a shallow and rapid chest breathing pattern. To truly breath deeply and fully, you need to use your main breathing muscle, the diaphragm.
Unlike diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes referred to as “belly breathing“), shallow, chest breathing results in higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscle tension, higher stress levels, and feelings of fatigue. In fact, studies of vital lung capacity, or our ability to breathe deeply, show that lung capacity is a reliable predictor of one’s mortality.
To understand this better, let’s take a look at how aging effects the lungs and how yogic breathing serves to help maintain vital lung capacity.
Breath and Aging
Breathing is vital for health. However, as we age, our ability to breath properly starts to diminish. In addition to loss of elasticity in the lungs and intercostal muscles (located between the ribs), stiffening of the ribcage limits our ability to breath deeply. Factors such as prolonged sitting, poor posture, increased stress, and chronic pain also affect breathing.
As a result, it is common for the lungs to lose about 12 percent of their capacity between the ages of 30 and 50. In fact, by age 80, lung capacity can be diminished by up to 30 percent. To better understand why this happens, let’s take a look at how our lungs do the work of breathing.
How the Lungs Work
First, our lungs don’t have muscular tissue so we can’t move them voluntarily. Instead, the lungs rely on the muscles of the diaphragm, rib cage and abdomen. Further, the expansion and shrinking of the lungs occurs in response to the interplay between the following: 1) pressure and volume within the lungs, 2) the pleural cavity that separates the lungs from the ribcage, and 3) the atmospheric pressure around you.
Here’s how these three things work together to facilitate breathing:
First, when you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This increases the space in the chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand into it.
Then, the intercostal muscles between the ribs help enlarge the chest cavity by contracting to pull the rib cage both upward and outward on an inhalation. This ability of the lungs to stretch out following the movement of the ribcage is called lung compliancy.
Next, as the lungs expand, the air pressure inside the lungs decreases, causing atmospheric air to fill the lungs.
When you reach the end of an inhalation, elastic fibers in the lungs cause them to recoil, or shrink back, pulling the ribcage inward. During this process, muscles attached to the ribs contract and the muscles of the diaphragm and the abdomen relax. As a result, volume in the chest cavity decreases and pressure in the lungs increases, causing the air to be pushed out through the nose. This ability of the lungs to recoil is called lung elasticity.
Proper lung function depends on the delicate balance between lung compliancy (ability to stretch out) and lung elasticity (ability to shrink back). This is where yoga can support healthy lung function.
“For breath is life, so if you breathe well, you will live long on earth.”
Yoga and Healthy Lungs
Yoga practices can help maintain the proper balance of compliancy and elasticity of the lungs in several ways.
1) Moving the spine in all directions. From backbends to forward folds, twists and side bends to general lengthening, movement of the spine in all directions serves to maintain spinal mobility and elasticity of the intercostal muscles. In particular, backbends counteract the rounding of the upper spine, known as kyphosis, that often comes with age.
2) Breathing fully. Deepening the inhalation and lengthening the exhalation increases lung elasticity and compliancy. Pranayama practices, like three-part breath (dirgha swasam), encourage the use of the entirety of the lungs, not just the upper regions.
3) Working with Breath Retention. The breath is divided into four parts: 1) the inhalation; 2) the brief pause before the next exhale; 3) the exhalation and 4) the pause the proceeds the next inhale. By working with specific proportional breath ratios, we can increase the amount of time we are able to suspend the breath and thus increase lung capacity.
Simple Breath Ratio Practice
If you’d like to give ratio breathing a try, here’s how:
1) Begin with an easy, unhurried 3-4 count inhalation.
2) At the end of your inhale, pause for a count of one or two. This should feel comfortable and effortless.
3) Exhale slowly, making your exhalation one to two counts longer than the inhale. For example, if you inhaled for a count of three, your exhalation should be about 4-5 counts in length.
4) Pause again at the end of your exhale for 1-2 counts before taking your next inhale. Continue this pattern for 5-10 breath cycles.
5) Finish by returning to your normal breath pattern for a few cycles. Notice any after effects from this practice.
With the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher or therapist, you can learn how to lengthen gradually increase these ratios and improve your lung capacity. To help you get started, I invite you to watch the video below. It features a short, seated yoga sequence and pranayama practice for enhancing your lung capacity.
original 10/11/21; updated 1/9/23