I could really go on and on about breath, from many different angles and actually have been sent down the rabbit hole for a few days now wondering how I might approach this, in a single blog post.
Our breath, the in-breath and the out-breath happen quite naturally, right? Of course, they do. It is one of the most important things necessary to our survival. We do not have to think about it. It is just one of the many wonderous systems in our body, working behind the scenes.
However, if you look at how a baby breathes, and how many of us older folks breathe, you might notice a difference. How in babies and young children it almost seems like their whole body moves when they breathe. How their big, soft bellies expand with each inhale. For us, often, not so much.
There could be a whole mess of reasons, but the one I’ll explore here is one you’ve perhaps been exploring over the past week.
Muscular tension might be involved when we hold our breath, or when it doesn’t flow so freely.
What might create this tension?
Last week, I suggested you might explore ordinary movements you do in a day (like making your bed, maybe it’s vacuuming, perhaps while brushing your teeth) and are they perhaps a little beyond what feels easeful for you? It might be the way you feel while doing something, when rushed. When it feels like there’s not enough time and space to do so (maybe when you’re eating, for instance). Tension might have something to do with your thoughts and emotions. The context in which you live, the people you connect with, while talking, using (or not using) your voice.
Generally, muscles and tissues may become strained, fatigued over time if they are recruited, or over-recruited, ‘switched on’ a lot. We may not be aware of this, particularly if ongoing over a long period of time. It often becomes our usual ‘pattern’ rather than what might be a responding or releasing (and relaxing) as required.
There are also some areas of the body where this tension might get in the way of a full, easeful, ‘natural’ breath we see in a baby. I think of the stomach or belly area for one. How many people unconsciously hold or constrict in this area for a multitude of reasons? This, which happens to be the area containing your primary breathing muscle, the respiratory diaphragm. Or might someone hold tension unconsciously in their pelvic floor (diaphragm) muscles, again for a variety of reasons? I think of all those ‘core exercises’ we’ve been told are good for us or how often women socially, culturally, ‘suck in their stomach. Or perhaps you’ve been told to do kegels at one time or another, or hold, strengthen or tighten up your pelvic floor muscles. Which may be useful. Or maybe not.
Both diaphragms are meant to move with each breath yet with tension and tightness in one or both, might this change how we breathe?
Holding tension might not allow for a full, deep breath such as when our respiratory diaphragm moves down, creating the in-breath. Maybe, we hold tension in the pelvic floor, without realizing it and again, not allowing for optimal breath.
Now, think about what is more important to our body, to our brain, but breathing. And how this regular intake of oxygen not only provides nourishment our body needs to survive, but it also forms or influences our physiological state. For instance if we are under threat, or even perceived threat there are immediate changes to our physiology, including our breath, that takes place to aid in our survival.
Which is all great when we’ve broken a bone, need to pull our hand away from fire, stay clear of toxic fumes or something similar. Back in the old days, we would need all our senses, these sensations, to help us stay clear of dangerous predators like tigers and the like.
What happens now though, is often we are unaware of:
1. The threats (real or perceived) that we encounter on a daily basis. These aren’t likely threats like running from tigers, but threats in terms of our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our communities, our environment. How much of the news do you see, threatens your sense of safety? Does this create a sense of tension, stress, holding of your breath perhaps, in your body?
2. The response of your nervous system and subsequent physiology that accompanies this. You may have read that stress is not good for the immune system, for your mental health, etc. but there are also effects on other areas or systems that occur including your pain system. If pain is meant to protect you, yet you ‘feel’ threatened, stressed, and tense might that turn UP the volume of pain? Have you ever noticed a correlation (not saying cause, here) in your stress levels and your pain?
Conversely, how might a sense of safety, turn DOWN the volume of pain? Even a few simple words from a parent to a child such as “you’ll be okay” often turns down a pain response.
- Can we learn to notice our breath and what that might tell us about how we feel?
- Can we find a breath that is supportive for us, when it’s called upon?
- Can we find a breath that is supportive for for us, when we need rest, find calm, sleep?
There is no right or wrong in this.
Rather, can we find a responsive, flexible breath that supports us for whatever it is we’d like to do? To live in an optimal state of health? As a first step, can be begin to notice this at all?
If you’d like to read in-depth about the breath, yoga therapy, current findings, and research about breath related to pain care, you might check out Chapter 8 by Shelly Prosko, in Yoga and Science in Pain Care – Treating the Person in Pain.
Personally, attention to breath and subsequent practices has had the most influence I find, when working with people who experience persistent pain. Time and time again. Though as Shelly rightly points out “the practices must be individualized to meet the unique needs of the person.” Telling people to take big, deep breaths, may not be ‘the answer’ or ‘the fix’ for everyone which is often what I see out in the main stream media. Suggesting there is some kind of ‘ideal’ breath, for all people, at all times.
I was looking at this tree (pictured above) in my back yard at lunch time today. It sways and flows. Appears strong, yet supple. Not rigid, brittle, tight or constricted. Takes in nourishment, gives back some. Might we be like this tree … A breath in. A breath out. Responding as need be, in any given moment to what life is asking of us.
I’ll be diving into this in more detail with information, a little bit of research and experiential practices in Week 4 of my upcoming online ‘Creating New Pathways‘ course. Want to learn more?
Interested to learn more about this thing called ‘yoga therapy’? Some FAQ’s plus links for ways yoga therapy can help, information for healthcare providers, where we’re at in terms of current research and yoga, yoga therapy.