by Forrest Martin, FRRI Instructor and CAL FIRE Captain

The natural process of breathing is one of the most overlooked means by which we can influence our health, strength, and happiness. Sure, it’s a natural process we do thousands of times a day, but because it’s such a normal activity it’s overlooked for the power in which it can give us.

Most of us, regrettably, don’t breathe properly. We rely on accessory muscles and diaphragmatic breathing that robs us of utilizing the deeper lobes of the lungs where up to 80% of optimal oxygen exchange takes place. Moreover, this suboptimal breathing method limits our ability to remove carbon dioxide, thus making our entire body more acidic and receptive to inflation and infection.

Proper breathing; facilitated by starting your breath in your belly to free up your posterior thoracic cavity and accessing your lower lungs, then expanding your rib cage (rather than lift your diaphragm), and letting your exhale fall from your lips without force has the power to completely change your body chemistry! This simple awareness has the power to fight inflammation by limiting cortisol in your bloodstream; as you are taking in more oxygen whilst concurrently off-gassing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. This thereby increases blood alkalinity, creating a physiologic environment that limits tissue inflammation and gears the body to better deal with stress and adversity, be it mental or physical!

Inflammation within the body is the hallmark to nearly every medical malady, from the common cold to advanced cancers. Your body succumbs to these ailments by presenting an opportunity in the form of a compromised system already beset by high levels of inflammation within the tissues.

As first responders, our bodies are, unfortunately, naturally primed in this state. Not just from the physical tolls of our jobs, but also mental. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between these two stressors, and its reaction in both scenarios is to activate a sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) that heightens adrenaline and cortisol in our body tissues as a response to adverse conditions. But as many of you already know, we as first responders can never really turn off this vicious cycle, because even off-duty our traumas follow us home. Living in this constant state of fight or flight puts enormous stress on our immune system, and regrettably makes us all more prone to any number of medical issues in the process.

  • So, what can we all do about this? As mentioned, deep and thoughtful breathing can alter this cycle of trauma, so I’d like you to try this simple exercise to reset your own system:
  • Get in a position of comfort, be it seated or lying flat. Remove your shoes and any constricting articles of clothing that make you uncomfortable and limit your focus on your body’s natural breathing cycle.
  • Place one hand on your belly, then the other lightly across your neck.
  • As you breathe, inhale through both the nose and mouth, and exhale only through the mouth.
  • Starting in your belly, press your belly out against your hand with your deep inhale, lifting your palm whilst feeling your lungs in your lower back slightly lift your pelvis off the floor.
  • Once you’ve filled your belly, bring your focus to your rib cage, feeling it expand in all directions further lifting yourself off the floor as it lifts your support arm that lies across your neck.
  • As you reach the top of your inhale, be cognizant of the tension in your neck and jaw. Once you feel tension beneath your fingers that are gently resting across your neck you’ve reached the top of your lung capacity, at which time let your breath release in a deep sigh.
  • Once you’ve released your passive exhale (don’t force your exhale, just let it fall from your lips), immediately begin your next inhalation starting in your belly. Continue this rhythmic breathing pattern without pausing between inhalation or exhalation for 10-20 breaths.
  • Enjoy yourself! You’ve taken the first step in establishing a connection between the mind, body and heart!

Remember, the objective is hyper-oxygenation, not hyper-ventilation. Breathe at your own rate and rhythm that allows a constant flow of inhalation and exhalation without forcing your body to a point of strain or discomfort. Breathe with elegance as Wim Hof would say.

If we just take the time to be present, breathe with purpose, and calm our minds we can all live healthier, stronger and happier lives!