Are you breathing?
Well, of course you are.
Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this post. But….. are you breathing fully? Are your breaths 100% efficient? Are you using the correct diaphragmatic and core muscles to enhance respiration? Or are you using your shoulders, back and neck to breathe?
Most likely you have never considered these questions because breathing is an autonomic activity. In other words, it is something that is automatically regulated by your brain, and that is lucky for all of us. Imagine if we had to think about each breath! We’d be incapacitated. And yet, that’s what I am asking you to do in this blog…..think about your breathing. This scares some people. It can be a bit overwhelming. But no worries! I’ll walk you through the process and I’ll give you data to confirm that we all need to explore our breathing patterns because many of us are not breathing properly. This is increasing our pain syndromes, increasing stress related diseases like headaches, GI disorders, cardiovascular diseases, decreasing how well our muscles and their attachments work, reducing core strength and preventing the ability to relax the mind, body and spirit.
Take a deep breath and read on.
Classically, deep breathing practice has been confined to the realm of yoga and relaxation/meditation techniques, some of which are 4000 years old. Nowadays, we go to a yoga class where we practice savasana ( lying meditation) at the end of class and are “told” to deep breathe for 10 minutes and relaaaaaxxxx…..
But, let’s face it… in reality, we lie there creating a shopping list, or obsessing about a fight we had with our spouse, or thinking about how fat we are, instead of focusing on our breath work. We don’t appreciate the opportunity. Unfortunately, our fast-paced culture has created a version of yoga where sweating and straining is more important than breathing and quieting the mind. We forget that the purpose of yoga is to quiet the breath and create a relaxed, aware and present mind-body connection. We are really missing the big picture.
One reason for a neglect of proper breathing awareness is that science never evaluated the importance of relaxed breathing until the 1970’s. Prior to this, it was merely a hippy yoga culture topic. In the early 70’s, cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, conducted a study which showed that there is a direct physiological response within the body when it is in a meditative state brought on with focused breathwork. In his book, entitled the “Relaxation Response”, Dr. Benson states that “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.” (You can learn more about the relaxation response and Dr. Benson’s findings at www.relaxationresponse.org ) Benson defines the response as “your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain”. Benson demonstrated that meditation promotes better health, especially in individuals with hypertension. People who meditate regularly enjoy lower stress levels, increased wellbeing and even were able to reduce their blood pressure levels and resting heart rate.
Specifically, during the relaxation response, the body moves from a state of physiological arousal- including increased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed digestive functioning, decreased blood flow to the extremities, increased release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and other responses preparing the body to fight or run- to a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormonal levels return to their normal state. He proved that our breath impacts every aspect of our physiological make-up.
Since Benson’s original research, our world has drastically changed. Chronic stress and pain are an ongoing epidemic. Luckily, research is also ongoing on the powers of proper breathing and meditation. Current research shows a direct connection between proper breathing leading to a relaxed state, and health and healing. YES. Healing…..from cancer, from injuries, from mental illness, from drug addiction, from chronic diseases. In addition, over the last decade, this research has expanded to include a musculoskeletal approach to evaluating proper breathing, so that we now can explore how improper breathing impacts athletic performance and injury potential.
As Robert George, D.C., CSCS so clearly states in his article “Defining and Correcting Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns for Athletic and Personal Trainers”:
“Breathing has a significant role in its effects on movement quality and stability of the core and spine. If breathing is normal or “functional”, posture and stabilization of the spine will be maintained in a healthy manner. The converse is true in that dysfunctional breathing plays a key role in not only posture and stabilization of the spine but a myriad of other health issues……
The relationship between the diaphragm, breathing and stabilization of the spine is closely linked. When the diaphragm is compromised and breathing patterns are altered, the spine will be involved. And when the spine is involved with dysfunction or pain, the reverse is also true. Clients with a history of neck or back pain, even when the pain is gone, will most likely have an abnormal breathing pattern causing inner core dysfunction affecting the diaphragm. Of note, epidemiological studies have shown that disorders of breathing and continence are more closely linked to the development of lower back pain than excessive BMI and physical activity.”
So, how do we know if we are breathing improperly?
Several things to watch for:
- If you raise your shoulders and contract your neck muscles when breathing, you are in a dysfunctional breathing pattern.
- If you breathe solely through your mouth, or take short incomplete breaths, you are in a dysfunctional pattern.
- If you have ongoing back, neck or shoulder pain, this may be related to improper breathing.
- If you have a weak or distended anterior core, this may be related to improper breathing.
- If you can not relax, you are breathing improperly.
- If your breath feels “stuck” or short of breath in yoga and meditation classes
Improper breathing patterns have a great impact on us because breath is the foundation of life.
What is proper breathing?
Proper breathing, in short, means that, on your inhale, you are able to relax the abdominal muscles so that they distend outward to accommodate the diaphragm’s movement. You should feel your lower belly expand on the inhale. Next, your rib cages and your sternum (chest) should also fully expand to accommodate the breath, similar to a balloon, expanding in all directions.
On your exhale, the abdominal muscles will draw inward, pressing air out of the lungs. The rib muscles also contract, along with the chest, to expel air. You should feel a complete easy exhale, just as you should feel a complete easy inhale.
How do you practice proper breathing?
There are many ways to learn proper breathing techniques through practice. But, you must practice.
Make the commitment. Find 5-10 minutes a day where you can sit or lie quietly without distraction. Get as comfortable as possible and “try” and release any negative self-judgements about your ability to practice quiet breath work.
Place your hands on your belly button, then lateral ribs, and finally chest, to make sure these three parts are all involved adequately. This is called “The Three Part Breath”, often used in Yoga. Take several breaths with hands in each position to “feel” those parts moving. Don’t be surprised if initially your breath seems a challenge. You may be drawing your abs in on the inhale and distending abs on exhale (This is called paradoxical breathing). Your breathing patterns will take time to change, but this is one of the most important things you can do for your health and well-being.
If you are having challenges with feeling your breath, a second technique I recommend is “crocodile breathing”. In this exercise, lie on the floor on your stomach with your legs straight and your head resting comfortably on your hands under your forehead. Relax your neck. Take an inhale allowing the abdomen to distend and feel the entire back lift towards the ceiling. Feel the expansion of your back and ribs as the abdomen pushes into the floor. Relax your neck, head and legs throughout exercise.
Take time to notice how your mind relaxes with your breath practice. This is the mind-body connection.