Feel the benefits of breathing with the diaphragm
Breathing. It’s natural. Our body does it all on its own. Really we don’t need to think about it. Except most of us don’t allow our bodies to breathe its natural spontaneous full breath. We restrict it – and ourselves.
We don’t restrict our breath on purpose of course. But most of us do it. Either because we are stressed, depressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Or because we are not conscious of how we sit, stand and move affects our breath (and obviously other health issues such as digestion/general muscular tension). Most of us do not move or stay still in optimal positions for our body to fully breathe.
Let’s start with the physical. This is about our anatomy and structure. If we have a bad posture (sorry, no other ways to put it), it will affect the ability to use the full capacity of our lungs.
Try it. Collapse your chest, slouch, hunch… and then try to breathe.
Our lungs expand like balloons with every inhale and then moves back again on the exhale. The lungs reside inside the structure of the ribcage. Between the ribs we have muscles. They are called the intercostal muscles. Like all muscles, they can expand and contract. And like all muscles, we can train them to be more flexible and stronger. And like all muscles, if they are not used they weaken, tense up and get “set” in whatever shape you are in all the time. Suddenly they don’t stretch so well. Or they start to constrict your potential for movement. The movement is your life-giving breath.
Now, consider your posture around your rib cage. How much can your intercostal muscles stretch? Try holding onto either side at the bottom of your ribs. Then a little higher underneath the armpits. What about the top of the chest, around your clavicles or collar bones? Can you feel your breath in your back, between and behind your shoulder blades?
Tight shoulders and the effect on our breath and health
As a yoga teacher and massage therapist one of the biggest complaints, my clients’ voice is tight neck and shoulders. When I massage one of the hot spots of tension lies around the shoulder blades and between the shoulder blades and spine, moving to the top of the shoulders into the neck. This includes the big trapezius muscle. If this part of our body is tense (which it is for most people) it will affect the way we breathe. There just isn’t enough movement for the lungs to fully expand.
We need structural support with good muscle tone and posture. But we also need to relax and soften. We need to be able to breathe.
Stretch it out, move around, get the blood circulation flowing, get a massage, go to yoga… For most getting a massage is one of the best things we can do for our health. This is just one benefit: release the constricted tight muscles. This too will affect our mental and emotional connection to the breath.
What is diaphragmatic breathing
But let’s look at another muscle which is part of our respiration, our breathing. It lies just below the lungs and ribs. Like a dome shape. It’s the diaphragm. With the breath out it almost domes up towards the lungs into the ribcage. When we inhale it stretches down towards the abdomen. This is a muscle and like all other muscles, it can get tight and underused. If we don’t use it well it will also affect the digestion, our lower back health and the pelvic floor. The dome of the respiratory diaphragm and the dome of the pelvic diaphragm are connected. They move together. I go into that relationship and much more pelvic floor details in various blogs here. (Or learn even more pelvic floor awareness in this online immersion)
This means that on an inhale you can feel and see the abdomen and the whole of the ribcage (including the back) expanding. You can even feel a slight expansion of the pelvic floor. On the exhale it will all draw gently back in.
How a look at this video:
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Breath and our mental health
Let’s think about the mental and emotional response on the breath. We know if we are anxious our breath changes. Same when we are angry. We might only breathe very shallow when depressed or stressed. My feeling is that we are all so busy, busy moving around, with deadlines, or having to quickly scroll on our social media or feeling rushed responding to messages or emails that we start breathing as if we are in a rush: short shallow and quick breaths. With short shallow quick breaths or when holding the breath, we don’t use the full capacity of our lungs. We don’t take in the full potential of oxygen. And it has an escalating effect on our emotional response.
If we breathe quickly or rushed our mind and nervous system believes we are in danger, maybe we need to fight, flight or freeze. The hormonal response to this perceived dangerous and stressful situation will escalate and affect our whole being. Stress is related to inflammatory responses in our body, to the sex hormones including how we feel during our cycle and menopausal issues.
Our body is clever. It will respond to how it “should”. Except we aren’t really in a fight, flight or freeze situation. Not all the time. But it is this response that can create the physical tension that we discussed above. It is also this response that gets “stuck” in the body until we move it (through somatic conscious movement, dance, yoga, breathing, shaking, even talking therapies). So our breath, body and mind are connected. Always.
That’s why I love yoga. And how we can start to move that tension. Working with the breath and with how we move our body and respond to challenging asana or body positions.
That’s why I love massage. Because like yoga it helps to release held tightness and restrictions. It’s a place where we can let go, release and breathe.
Yes, the breath is natural and spontaneous. But we can also consciously direct and change our breath. So allowing your body to breathe deeply and completely you also change your physical tightness and your mental/emotional tension.
Just for a few moments in the day you can stop and notice your breath. You can choose to consciously do breathing practices and to support your physical body by releasing muscular tension with massage and exercise. Look after your posture. Relax the shoulders. And breathe.
If you do suffer from breathing-related health issues please always seek advice from a professional health care practitioner as there can be other issues involved too. But starting to relax and release body, mind and breath is always a good idea.