Take a deep breath, because there's something you need to hear: You may be breathing wrong. Yep, that thing people do an average of 20,000 times per day – you could be going about it the wrong way! Test it out – are you holding your breath now?

Considering we've been breathing since we were born, you'd think we'd all be pros at it. And considering how important breathing is – filtering out germs and debris, cycling fresh oxygen to our organs and tissues, removing waste gases our body doesn't need – you'd think we'd all be a bit more mindful of it. But most people give it nary a thought.

Bad breathing habits can literally make you sick. They can deny your body of the oxygen it needs and leave you vulnerable to illness and stress.

Slower breathing, common in the practice of yoga, has been found to reduce shortness of breath, increase oxygen saturation in the blood, and improve exercise performance. Meditation, which centres on mindful breathing, has been linked to reduced stress, lowered risk of some cardiovascular conditions, and increased healing rates.

The breathing habit no-no's include mouth-breathing and breathing that is too rapid or too shallow.

Your nose knows

Ah, the neglected nose. It gets no respect, but it is crucial to healthy breathing. Your nose filters out germs and particles from the air, and it moistens and warms the air before it reaches your lungs. When you bypass the nose and breathe through your mouth instead, you're inviting all those germs and particles right into your system, increasing your risk of infection and slowing down your intake of oxygen. Whenever possible, breathe in and out through your nose. Consider it the trusted gateway between the world and your internal body. If you have sinus congestion that limits this, talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Belly breathing

Many breathers just don't take advantage of the wonderful diaphragm. The diaphragm is the potentially very strong muscle that sits beneath your lungs, just waiting to help you inhale and exhale. When you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and flattens so your lungs can expand and take in air. As you exhale, your diaphragm and rib muscles relax, pushing the air out of your lungs.

Some shallow breathers tend to sip breath into their upper chest, so the air never makes it down to the diaphragm. Or sometimes, they suck in their bellies as they breathe, pushing the diaphragm up trapping the air so the oxygen doesn't go as far as it should. If you let your belly expand rather than sucking it in, you're doing diaphragmatic breathing.

Trying to relearn something as instinctive as breathing takes discipline and concentration, sure, but the benefits can be worth the trouble. So, slow down, breathe more deeply, let your lungs fill with good old oxygen, and get the most you can out of every one of those 20,000 breaths you take each day!

Related links

Do you have bad breathing habits?
Under pressure: facing up to stress
Benefit from yoga
Meditation by the numbers

Amy Toffelmire