Just recently I was in a yoga class and as part of the warming up and creating our intention and focus for our practice, we spent a significant time focusing on our breath. I could have been more focused on my yoga practice that day, but my mind began to drift to what a great and needed topic “breathing” would be for my next article, so here we are.
What are we without breath? We all know the answer to that question. But how many of us truly breathe well, and therefore get the fullest benefit of a full breath? Not many of us. I cannot tell you how many times I catch myself holding my breath and have to remind myself to breathe! My intention in this article is to provide a little education on breath, and offer tips for how you can breathe more fully and be better overall for it.
Rolfing’s Focus on Breath
In the first session of the Rolfing Ten Series, the main goal is to improve breath. Rolfers focus on all the areas connective tissue influence proper breath, and this goes well beyond the respiratory diaphragm and lungs. You would be surprised that the legs, pelvis, arms, shoulders, and neck are all contributors to effective deep breathing. If there are restrictions in the hamstrings, forearms, or the neck–it impacts your ability to breathe fully. This is why it is so important and why Rolfers want to help clients get fuller, deeper, more expansive breath in their first session. If breath can be improved, it will influence and improve everything else–physically and emotionally.
I bet you are starting to pay attention to your breath now that you are reading this! That is good! Now we are going to do a little experiential activity together.
What Is The Quality Of My Breath?
You can have your eyes open or closed for this exercise, but eyes closed might allow you to focus more intently on your breath without distractions.
Sitting up straight, but comfortably, just breathe normally. Are your inhales equal in length to your exhales? Is inhalation easier? Exhalation? Are there areas where you feel your breath catching or getting hung up? As you inhale is your belly expanding, and then collapsing on your exhale, or is it the reverse? Do you only feel your breath up towards you neck and shoulders?
I know, lots of things to pay attention to, but I bet you just learned something about your breathing, and for most of us, we could be breathing better.
Anatomy and Movement of Breath
Thank goodness breathing is an autonomic response in our bodies–can you imagine having to be responsible for every breath you take? Because it is automatic, we tend to completely disregard the quality of our breathing. I am not going to get into a long anatomy lesson on how breathing happens in the body, or we will be here all day and I will most certainly lose your attention! Here are some quick hits about the anatomy and movement of breath:
Breathing is not just an up and down movement of your lungs and diaphragm. It is a three-dimensional movement. Up and down. Front and back. Side to side. That’s right, if you are breathing fully, you should feel movement in your belly, chest, and back with a forward and backward expansion, a lift up through your torso and downwards towards your low back and sacrum, and you should feel your ribs swing out to the sides like bucket handles as you inhale and exhale.
When we inhale the diaphragm contracts and chest cavity and abdomen should expand, and on the exhale the diaphragm relaxes and the chest cavity and abdomen will contract and collapse back.
What Fred Flintstone and a Gazelle Have to Do with How I Breathe
When in stressful situations breathing tends to get shallow and rapid (engaging our sympathetic nervous system). If we were Fred Flintstone we would need this breathing to get out of the threatening situation with a sabertooth tiger. This fight or flight breathing is critical to our survival, and while most of us don’t have to fight off a sabertooth tiger for our survival, we have many stressful situations we deal with everyday. The body doesn’t differentiate between an encounter with a tiger and an escalated situation with your manager or family member–it just knows it is a stressful and threatening situation, and therefore it kicks into survival mode to get through the stressful situation to when you can breathe a sigh of relief and resume normal rhythmic breathing (envoking the parasympathetic nervous system–aka relaxation response).
Ever wonder on the National Geographic shows where the lion chases the gazelle across the tundra, and if the gazelle manages to out-maneuver the lion, you find that same gazelle noshing on grass moments later without a care in the world? What?! What about the lion that it just out ran?! It could still be out there stalking the gazelle! Why isn’t it looking over it’s shoulder anxiously?! Animals go through a more physical release of these stresses–literally shaking it out of their system, allowing them to resume grazing on the tundra and moving on in their day.
Most of us humans, supposedly the superior species to a gazelle, live life with a string of stressful event after stressful event. We even go so far as to create some of those stressful events for ourselves! We do not allow ourselves to take the time coming out of one stressful situation to resume a calm state of mind or breath before we dive into another stressful situation.
Here’s the problem. When we live life this way, our breathing actually gets fixed into that fight or flight state–short and choppy. Eventually the more we do this, we (our bodies) forget how to breathe deeply and fully. Then the downward spiral starts….we find we aren’t sleeping as well, we are putting on weight, our bodies hurt all over, we are biting off the heads of anyone that crosses our path, we get sick more frequently, we are unhappy…down-right miserable.
Am I saying that if we have poor breathing habits that it will lead to sickness, irritability, agitation in relationships, disrupted sleep, and a host of many other stress-related conditions and diseases? Yes, yes, I am saying that. It may seem like a huge mental leap, but simply put, if our breathing alters, adjusts and adapts to how we feel and the situations we encounter day to day, it is then possible for us to use our breath to alter, adjust, and adapt to how we feel and respond to life. Wow….let that sink in for just a moment….
If we took the time to focus on breathing better, just imagine the impact it could have on our lives. Guess we have a lot to learn from that gazelle….
Benefits of Breathing Well
- Relaxes mind and body–deep breathing allows more oxygen into the body. Shallow breathing limits oxygen consumption and makes our muscles contract leaving them tense and tight. Regarding hormones, shallow breathing increases the production of cortisol and adrenaline.
- Improves posture–the more we practice deep breathing we start to sit and stand more upright.
- Detoxification in the body— If our breathing is shallow and syncopated, it prevents the lungs from expelling carbon monoxide effectively and efficiently, placing a strain on the others systems of the body. Additionally, shallow breathing limits the lymphatic system from effectively ridding the body of cellular waste, which can lead to sickness and disease.
- Relieves pain–when we encounter pain our tendency is to hold our breath, but deep breathing into the pain allows endophines to be released, easing pain.
- Improves digestion and helps regulate weight–deep breathing triggers the relaxation response which encourages the body to burn fat instead of glycogen.
And a few other benefits to deep breathing….
- Makes you happier and gives you energy
- Increases cardiovascular capacity and circulation
- Improves overall health and lowers our chances of sickness or disease
- Improves sleep
- Decreases blood pressure
How Can I Improve My Breathing?
There are TONS of breathing exercises out there, making it overwhelming for me to narrow down, so I will encourage you to seek out those practices that are right for you. Today, I will share a couple simple practices to get you started on your path to breathing and feeling better.
This can be great at the end of the day, as you unwind and are going to sleep.
- Lying on your back, place one hand over your belly button, and the opposite hand on your chest.
- As you inhale through your nose to the count of 4-6, fill your belly, and feel your hand lifting. As your inhale progresses you will feel your other hand start to raise as your lungs expand, but there should be more movement coming from your belly.
- Pause briefly at the top of your inhale.
- Start your exhale to the count of 4-6, allowing your lungs and belly to fall.
- Pause briefly at the bottom of your exhale.
- Continue to repeat. Focus next on feeling your breathing filling your back against the bed or floor. Then, you can place your hands on the sides of your ribs, feeling them expand and contract laterally as you breathe.
- From here, you can scan through your body, to identify areas where you are feeling tense and tight. The simple act of setting your thoughts on “sending” your breath to a certain area will allow for things to release.
Since I have talked a lot in this article about the influence of stress on our breath and health this may come in handy as you encounter stress in your day to day. Maybe you know you are going to have to have a difficult conversation with another person, or drive in heavy rush hour traffic, or you start to feel completely overwhelmed with all you have to accomplish today, and the list goes on.
- Sitting upright and comfortably (in a chair or on the floor), place your right hand on your belly, left hand on your chest, unless you are driving, and then just keep your hands on the wheel!
- Similar to Practice 1, breathe in deeply through your nose to the count of 4-6.
- Exhale to the count of 4-6, but pushing out your breath through your mouth as you contract your abdominal muscles.
- Repeat this cycle for a few minutes.
You might find you have a calmer state of mind, clearer thoughts, and don’t feel as overwhelmed.
You might like to find a mantra you like to say in your mind as you do this. A great chance for positive self-talk. One of my favorites, which you can borrow because I borrowed from someone else….”Breathe in…..Breath out…I’ve got you”. It is my reminder that no matter what challenge I am facing, I just need to breathe and God’s got the rest.
In closing, I wanted to find the perfect quote to end with, and it was challenging because there are so many quotes about breath, giving credence to the importance of practicing good breathing in our day to day. I landed on this simple quote, and am hopeful it inspires you to spend a few moments each day on your breath, because you most certainly will not be disappointed….
Happiness breathes when you do. ~Terri Guillemets