There’s no “correct” or “incorrect” way to breathe… your breath is like a useful mirror showing you exactly how you are, physically and mentally.
But by gently exploring easy ways of uncovering your body’s natural, innate healthy breathing, we can switch on a relaxation response, help calm pain signals, rejuvenate your energy, and relax your back muscles.
Awareness is the first step to healthy breathing. It wasn’t until I began Yoga that I realised how shallow and weak my breathing was. After years of chronic pain, I realised that every time I’d had muscle spasm, I’d held my breath. On some days, when I was in a lot of pain, I couldn’t breathe in very much without causing my muscles to spasm, and shallow, minimal breathing became a habit. This habit of shallow breathing lowered my energy levels so that I was constantly tired, compromised my immune system, and prevented my body from healing.
Full diaphragmatic healthy breathing helps oxygenate your tissues, and the diaphragm plays an important role in spinal stability.
Sometimes I’m asked to work with a client who’s been given some wonderful exercises by their physiotherapist, but when I ask them to show me the exercises I discover they’re not breathing at all. Not breathing, or even just shallow breathing, puts us in a state of stress where we can’t learn anything new, so often the client has been making no progress despite trying their absolute best.
Treating your body to slow, relaxed, healthy breathing is one of the most important keys to pain relief and relaxation. However, once your breathing has become shallow, trying to draw in big, deep breaths effortfully can make you feel more anxious rather than more relaxed, and effortful breathing may even make you feel more fatigued and achey.
Instead, try starting with a breath enquiry to find out where your breath is moving easily in your body, and where it’s not moving so easily, and then an enquiry to find out the length of your breaths. Just practising awareness of your breath in this way can be relaxing and grounding. Thirdly, you could try a lengthened exhalation, according to your present capacity, to recover your body’s innate ability for fuller, richer breaths.
Healthy Breathing Technique 1: awareness of breath movement
A good place to start is by just noticing your natural every-day breathing wherever it seems most obvious. Some people find it easiest to be aware of the breath as air flowing through the nostrils, while others find it easier to notice a movement in the chest, or somewhere else…just begin with whatever is easy, and notice your breath for a few cycles, without trying to change your breathing in any way.
Next, lie in a relaxed, comfortable position on your back, placing your hands on your belly (rest your elbows on the floor) and note any breath movement under your hands…not breathing deeply, just your natural breath.
Does your belly expand as your body breathes in, and then sink as your body breathes out? Observe for several cycles of breathing. This is what happens with natural diaphragmatic breathing; the belly expands with the inhalation and sinks with the exhalation.
However, sometimes after trauma or pain, we end up “reverse breathing”, meaning that the belly “sucks in” toward the spine during inhalation instead. This causes a loop of tension in the nervous system and in the back muscles. Don’t worry if this is the case for you! I was a “reverse breather” who learned how to regain healthy diaphragmatic breathing, and you can too.
You might find it helpful to rest a heavy pillow or folded blanket on your belly and have the idea that the inhalation will lift that object, and that it will sink on your exhalation.
Then, place your hands on your rib cage (resting your elbows on floor). Does your rib cage spread out or expand in any way as your body breathes in?
Is there a feeling of freedom and lightness with this movement or does it feel as if your breath comes up against restriction and stiffness?
How does the middle region of your back feel on the inhalation, and the exhalation?
Now place your hands on your chest, below your collar bones. Is there an easy lift of the chest here, without the shoulders lifting up towards the ears?
Can your shoulders stay effortlessly still while the skin below your collarbones expands on inhalation?
In which of these three sections of the body is your breath movement most obvious?
In which section does your breath seem most limited?
If you’re a visual person, click here for a great video from www.3d-yoga.com showing how your diaphragm moves can add insight and understanding into why your belly moves with full diaphragmatic breathing.
Healthy Breathing Technique 2: awareness of breath length
Watch the breath fall into a steady, even rhythm; just your ordinary, every-day breath. Then count slowly to find out how many counts your inhalation is, and how many counts your exhalation is.
For example, you might discover that your inhalation seems to last for a count of 3 while your exhalation seems to last for a count of 2. Or perhaps your inhalation lasts for a count of 4, and your exhalation a count of 3.
In reality every cycle of breath can be slightly different, so you may need to take a rough average, and that’s fine. You only need to get an idea of whether your inhalation is longer, or your exhalation is longer, or if they’re usually about the same length.
Is there a pause at the end of your inhalation or exhalation, or is your breath continuous?
As you observe, try to let your breath be automatic and spontaneous, letting it move through your body with its own every-day pace and rhythm. Of course, this is easier said than done because often as soon as we start watching the breath, it changes; often settling into a longer, smoother rhythm. This is one of the powerful benefits of cultivating a non-judgemental awareness of your breath.
Healthy Breathing Technique 3: rest in the pauses at the ends of your exhalations
So far, you’ve observed your breathing as it already is. This technique takes things a bit further, and it’s important to remember that not every technique suits every body. Try it for a few breaths and see if it leaves you feeling calmer and breathing easier. If not, stick to the first two steps. If you do find this one difficult, then working individually with an experienced teacher is a very good idea, as he or she will be able to give you an individualised practice.
Begin to notice the ends of your exhalations, in particular. Do you normally completely finish each exhalation, before the inhalation begins? Often when people are stressed or hurried, they don’t really truly finish exhaling before rushing into the next inhalation. This can set up a loop of:
more stress —-> shallower breathing —–> more stress —–> shallower breathing.
Try watching each exhalation all the way to its end, and feeling as if you’ve exhaled as much air out of your lungs as your body wants to breathe out. Maybe you can add just a moment more to your exhalation. Then linger in the pause at the end of your exhalation, as if you’re feeling lazy about breathing in. As you hang back, you’ll find that your body will breathe in as and when it wants to, without your effort.
Instead of taking a breath, you’re now receiving the breath. An inhalation received in this way tends to be effortlessly longer, smother, and more expansive.
Don’t allow any of this to be too much of a struggle. You might try just one lengthened exhalation at first, and then go back to automatic, every day breathing for a few cycles. Go gently, and build up slowly – you’re aiming not to struggle to create something new, but rather relaxing enough to recover your body’s own natural, innate healthy breathing. It’s more like getting out of your own way, than putting effort into it as if it were an exercise.
Remember, Yoga techniques are really meant to be tailored to the individual, especially the finer and subtler aspects of the practice, like breathing.
I have had some private clients that technique 3, for various reasons, would not have worked for, but we’ve very successfully been able to recover their healthy breathing using quite different and carefully tailored practices.
If you have a go at these healthy breathing techniques, please let me know how you find them! Hop over to the Facebook Page and leave a comment, or drop me a line at the bottom of the page.
You might also like to try listening to a Breath Awareness recording, which is easier than trying to read through text and practice at the same time. I have a free Breath Mindfulness recording available in a Welcome Pack through my mailing list, along with 2 short videos for more ease in your hips & lower back, a 5 minute mindfulness meditation for calm and grounding, a free Standing With Grace & Ease recording, and a Standing wth Grace & Ease PDF; click here to sign up.
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