Pimp My Breath
Old skool yoga (we're talking way, way back) must have had a few genius’ on the team because they spotted the importance of breathingand made it the backbone of the practice. Although yoga has gone through many changes since, the breathing aspect has kept its prominence throughout yoga’s evolution.
Good job it has too… Breathing has been shown to stimulate the vagusnerve, helping the body switch more effectively from your million-miles-an-hour sympathetic state, to the ahhh-I'm-so-zenned-out parasympathetic state.
Trouble is your fight-or-flight response has likely been on edge and ready for action for the last (how old are you?) few years … Basically, A LONG, ASS TIME! So many of us have lost the ability to go effectively and fully into our rest and digest nervous system, which is having serious repercussions on our health.
Back up a second… didn’t you just say our breathing can switch the nervous system back? Dish the dirt lady… Isn’t breathing just breathing… *confused look*
Yes your breathing muscles can help make the switch. But not all breaths were created equally. Breathing muscles are split into two main categories: Primary Breathing Muscles (PBM) and Accessory Breathing Muscles (ABM). And these breathing muscles will kick in at different times depending on what you’re up to.
The PBM’s are your diaphragm and intercostals. An over-simplified way to think of it is that they contract and relax to allow for your inhales and exhales. You know they’re all doing their job with gold stars when your inhale expands the belly and all the ribs, and the exhale sees them softening (much like a balloon). This 360 degree breath is your relaxed breath, which is slower and deeper and helps the body chill out and get to work on digesting that croissant you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat.
The ABM’s are your scalene’s (neck), pecs (chest), sternocleidomastoids (SCM’s) (neck), these help pull more air into your lungs and also signal to the brain that you are in heightened state of arousal -- brilliant when you’re running away from zombies, not so helpful when they instinctively kick in during exam prep or whilst plotting revenge on the neighbour that stays up late making noise (all ideas are welcome, just hit reply) ;o)
Ok, Cel I’ve got it! I’ll be doing the fancy, 360 breathing from now on.
Good news bendy fam, but let’s take a quick look at what daily habits might make this mid-year-resolution harder to stick to.
In this section of the blog, let’s do a little exercise:
Sit slumped (hyperkyphosis) and try take a big breath in.
Now arch your back excessively (hyperlordosis) and again inhale.
Next, can you make your back really flat without any curves? How’s that inhale feeling?
Finally, can you take a deep breath in as you push your body into a sway back posture, where your hips are in front of your chest?
Most people find relaxed deep breathing to feel somewhat restricted in these positions. Of course, it’s not harmful to visit these postures for short intervals during the day. The trouble is we are spending way too much time in these unnatural positions.
But Cel, I have no choice. I have to sit for my job!
I hear you and I’ve got you covered. Next we are going to establish a neutral S curve with our spines. Line up your shoulder to a mirror and check you have a little curve by your ribs and the opposite curve by your lower back, double checking your curves stack through each other. This neutral spine should give your belly and ribs the space they need to move freely (praise the lord).
The other good thing about this neutral posture is it keeps your deepest core layer active without you needing to think about it. This big fancy muscle is called the transverse abdominus, and its job is to support the organs and spine. Pretty important stuff. It also knows how to work along with your diaphragm so it doesn’t stop your breathing.
“Core activation” however is often mistaken as needing to engage the belly and make it tight. Just to clarify this IS NOT THE TVA! Often when people have tightness around their bellies, they have overactive obliques and rectus abdominus muscles. These are your superficial muscles and they DO effect how efficiently the diaphragm works. If the abdomen is tight for long periods of time there is a chance the accessory breathing muscles will have to kick in. Remember these help your stress response turned on, so lots of time here is bad news.
Try relax your tummy and let your belly expand with the ribs as you breathe. If you’re not sure if your TVA is working, use your fingers tips to lightly palpate the soft tissue just to the inside of your hip bones. If there is a light sense of activation and your posture is in neutral you’re doing great. If there is so much softness you can feel your bladder, not great.
This takes practice. So don’t worry if you can’t get this balance right away. Be patient. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your body starts figuring out what it’s supposed to be doing, and before you know it, this will be an unconscious process.
Allow the belly and ribs to expand as you breath
Avoid spending long periods breathing into your upper chest
Find the neutral S curve in your spine
Keep your superficial belly muscles soft
You’re now pimped up and ready to make the switch from super-stressed mode into your relaxed-to-the-max mode.