Breathe better to move better: Train to breathe like a pro athlete

Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She’s the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

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Breathing is natural, but there are ways to breathe better

Many pro athletes train in techniques to increase mobility and prevent tension

CNN  — 

From an early age, we’re taught that breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system, like digesting food, so unless there’s a problem, it’s not something we need to think about. But, unlike digestion, we actually have the ability to control our respiration – and for good reason. Arguably, the way we breathe has the power to impact every aspect of our health and wellness, from how we think and feel to how we move.

Many of us recognize the link between breathing and physiology, particularly during times of stress, but most don’t realize its reciprocal impact on our overall posture and mobility. Bad breathing creates tension and immobility, and immobility and tension prevent good breathing. That’s why teaching proper breathing biomechanics is the foundation of all my work with professional athletes.

How bad breathing hurts us

The quality of our breathing is governed by our ability to access the primary muscle of respiration: the diaphragm. It’s a misconception that diaphragmatic breathing is reserved for deep breathing. It’s actually fundamental to all functional breathing. And, the diaphragm’s function, in simplest terms, is dictated by the position of your ribcage and spine and vice versa.

If, like most people, your breathing is primarily chest oriented and shallow, your ribcage will get pulled into a lifted and flared state that compromises diaphragm function, requiring chest, neck, and upper back muscles to act as “accessory” breathing muscles. This causes chronic tension that locks you into poor – often painful – posture with shoulders slumped forward, shoulder blades humped and your mid-back flattened.

What’s more, when the diaphragm isn’t being used properly for respiration, it becomes dysfunctional in its postural role, too, pulling into its attachments to your lumbar spine, causing disc compression. This chain reaction of tension from improper breathing doesn’t just hurt and make it harder to move, it increases your risk of back, neck and shoulder injury.

You could spend multiple hours a day stretching and practicing “good” posture, but, because we take almost 1,000 breaths an hour, 24 hours per day, relief would only be temporary without correcting your breathing.

How to breathe better

“Just take long, deep breaths.”

This is a common directive given by well-intentioned therapists, coaches, yoga instructors and the like. However, its effectiveness is predicated on actually knowing how to breathe properly.