Breathe! Part 1
“Since yesterday at this time you have taken perhaps twenty thousand breaths. In your lifetime you will breathe in and out more than a hundred million times. Given the sheer volume, it is very easy to take breathing for granted, to assign it to the deep background of life. But what if you made a tiny improvement in something you did that many times? If you can learn to breathe even a little bit better, you will notice immediate, profound shifts in your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. If you learn to breathe effectively, you will improve the quality of your entire life.”
– Gay Hendricks, Ph.D
Anyone who’s reading this is breathing, but you probably weren’t really paying attention to it. I bet you are now! What do you notice about the breath? Is it the way it passes through your nostrils? Is it the way it fills your chest or belly? As you notice it, does it feel like it’s changed? Is your breath bigger now, deeper, slower? Or did it speed up and get shallow?
I’m in perpetual awe of the breath. It is an essential function, yet unlike other essentials like your heart or digestion we can affect it simply by noticing it. Through this ability we have the power to affect our physical, mental, and spiritual health in amazing ways. In my enthusiasm talking about breath I’ve decided the only way to do justice to one of my favorite topics is to write another three part series of blogs before the workshop on the 19th. After all, I don’t just want to say that breath affects body, mind, and spirit and leave it at that – I want to show you. It’s too cool not to share!
In this first entry I think it’s good to start with the tangible effects of breathing on our physical body, and there are a lot! Breath is necessary down to the cellular level, and we can’t last long without it. To put it in perspective: humans can go for weeks without food, days without water, but a couple minutes tops without breath. In the hierarchy of needs, it’s the tippy-top. So it’s a tremendously good thing that we don’t HAVE to think about it all the time in order for it to work. Can you imagine?
But considering how essential it is to our physical survival, I find it peculiar that we can choose to take it off autopilot. We can adjust it, change it, and correct it at will. Correct it, you say? Well, yes. Because it runs on autopilot in the background most of the time, unnoticed, it is susceptible to accumulating habits and patterns that affect it in negative ways. Our posture has a big impact on our breathing pattern, for example. Slouching and slumping closes off our chest and puts restrictive pressure on the heart, lungs, and diaphragm, one of the big breathing muscles.
Speaking of muscles, breathing uses a fair amount of them! And like any other muscle relationship in the body, imbalances can develop. Perhaps you’ve heard of ‘chest breathing’ or ‘belly breathing’. Each is a necessary component of a good breath, but if you consistently favor one over the other things can get out of sync. Perpetually breathing upward into your chest can create tension in your neck and shoulder muscles, and even create structural sheering forces in your cervical vertebrae. Conversely, constant belly breathing can create a situation where your abdominal muscles are overstretched and no longer participating in the task of supporting your organs and lumbar spine, and loading a lot of pressure into your pelvic floor besides. Hmm, … nobody has problems in any of these places, right? Yeah, just everybody.
In a study of breath and its impact on functional movement, a correlation was found between what they refer to ‘faulty breathing mechanics’ and such things as poor posture, shoulder dysfunction, low back pain, neck pain, TMJ syndrome and SI (sacroiliac) joint dysfunction. (Helen Bradley, PT, MSc and Joseph Dr. Esformes, PhD, CSCS)
In my own study and practice of Neurokinetic Therapy (NKT), I often find a direct connection between faulty breathing mechanics and muscular imbalance throughout the body. The diaphragm is a very common muscle to pick up the slack when another feels like it can’t handle the job, and the usual result is having to hold your breath to feel strong enough to do something. Nobody ever does that, right? (wink wink). In my own body I have found an overactive diaphragm can inhibit my ability to correctly use my abdominal muscles, and correcting the breathing mechanics has resolved this issue.
And in our daily lives I think breath is both the greatest indicator and most effective solution to the dual body and mind issue of stress. Stress and the resulting ‘fight or flight’ response affects the breath, but can also be down regulated by conscious breathing. Chronic tension and stress is linked to such mental disturbances as anxiety disorders, depression, and anger issues, though physical symptoms abound as well. Heart disease has been linked to the body’s response to stress, as well as immune function, hypertension, systemic inflammation, and obesity. We have the power to stop the stress response of our body and brain by simply regulating our breath in a mindful way.
Pilates excels at teaching us to support, move, and breathe simultaneously, which is by far the most functional use of the body. Stability, mobility, and breath must all be present for our body to succeed in any endeavor, and Pilates can show us how. My challenge to you this week is simply to notice your breath. It won’t be all the time, but even by noticing it now and then we can begin to build a more meaningful and effective relationship with this essential life component.