Breathing is so cool. Just think about it.
Breathing is the one function our bodies must accomplish automatically to survive, but we can stop if we want! We can hold our breath until we become blue in the face and pass out (like I did as an infant a couple of times — can you imagine my poor mother?)! But thankfully, if we pass out, our bodies go into auto-pilot and begin breathing again. The breath is this amazing connection between what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled, so learning to use it to your advantage can be a powerful tool in healing the body and soul from the inside out.
If you observe a baby breathing when it’s born, you’ll see the abdomen rising with the inhale and falling with the exhale. This is because babies use their diaphragms (more on this later) to breathe, filling their little lungs to the brim with life-sustaining oxygen with every inhalation. Conversely, most teenagers (and everyone else), have an entirely different breathing pattern. As we age, most of us begin to use a less-than-optimal breath pattern, taking shorter, shallower, breaths and only moving the chest during normal breathing. This paradoxical breathing pattern (chest breathing, or even pulling the abdomen inward as one inhales) has a variety of health-related implications including:
- Neck/shoulder pain and headaches
- Back pain
- Pelvic floor issues like incontinence, urgency, prolapse and constipation
- Pelvic pain
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Shortness of breath
- Abdominal discomfort
The star of the show, when it comes to breathing properly is a muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits below the ribcage, under the lungs and just above the stomach and liver. When used properly, the diaphragm moves downward into the abdomen on inhalation, massaging the internal organs, stimulating the nervous system and expanding the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles outward and downward, respectively. During the exhale, pressure changes between the chest and the abdomen cause all these muscles to passively return to their resting position.
You can master the abdominal-diaphragmatic breath with a simple exercise:
- Lie on your back with your knees comfortably resting on a couple of pillows.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen. Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting your abdomen rise into your hand. The hand on your chest should not move. Try to feel your pelvic floor muscles stretch and expand as well.
- Slowly exhale through your nose letting your abdomen and pelvic floor muscles gently return to their resting position.
- Eventually stretch the inhale and exhale to 4-8 counts each.
- Practice this for at least 10 minutes, 1-2 times per day.
This may feel very awkward at first. Remember you are training muscles that probably have not been used properly for many years! Retraining any muscle takes time and the diaphragm is no exception. If you practice this way and find you are still unable to move your abdomen during the inhale, place a heavy object, like a bag of rice or beans on your abdomen during the inhale. As you improve, try to remember to breathe more like this during the day and reap the healthy rewards of mindful breathing.