Take a Deep Breath

By Tara Patriquin, Massage Therapist

Breathing. Seems simple enough, right? For something that is so innate and natural, many of us could be doing it wrong. I used to be a shallow breather, filling up my chest and carrying all my tension in my shoulders. It wasn’t until I started practicing Yoga, and the art of mindful breathing (Pranayama), that I started to take note of how my breath was making me feel.

Relaxed breathing should see a loose abdomen expand with inhalation, with a mild contraction on the exhalation. The rib cage will spread out to make room for the lungs that are expanding to take in the extra demand of oxygen. So why do many of us do the opposite? Pull in our abdomen and puff out our chests when inhaling? Anxiety? Stress? Habit?

Science has shown us that breathing patterns will change when the emotional or physical patterns change; faster and more shallow when we are anxious or angry, we might hold our breath when we are distracted or in pain, and so on. Studies have also shown that the reverse can be true. We can change our emotional or physical patterns (or at the very least, our reaction to said pattern) by consciously altering our breathing rhythm.

You have likely been asked to slow and deepen your breath during a massage or physio session; thereby, breaking an unconscious pattern and the negative energy that goes with it. In today’s society, we have a tendency to over-stimulate our sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response to stress), and we under-stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest responses). Living in a heightened state of stress has been shown to contribute to a number of illnesses, ranging from heart disease, diabetes, sleep disorders, and a host of pain.

A daily breathing ritual will strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system, providing you with the long list of benefits and reducing the risks associated with having an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system. Start and end your day with one of these exercises designed to strengthen your diaphragm. The diaphragm is possibly the most important muscle for efficient breathing.

1. Lying on your back with a phone book on your stomach breathe deep in to your stomach allowing the phone book to rise and fall with your breath. When you have taken a deep breath in, hold for 10 seconds and the release, letting the gentle weight of the phone book aid you in letting go of all air before breathing in again.

2. Breathing in to the belly as practiced in the first exercise, plug one nostril and breathe deeply through the open nostril. Then plug the open nostril and breath out the opposite nostril. Repeat several times each side.

3. Breathe through a straw for one minute or until you start to feel dizzy then return to regular breathing. Again, making sure to breathe deep in to the belly. Try this three times.

I have witnessed these exercises work for people with asthma, athletes who wanted to improve their stamina and respiratory endurance, and for those who wanted a deeper meditation.

You can test the strength of your diaphragm using the Snider’s Test. Open your mouth wide and try to blow out a lit match that is six inches away from you. With a strong diaphragm you should be able to do this easily.

There is another simple test that you can do for yourself to measure the general capacity of the diaphragm and lung volume. This one is a favourite among kids. Remember holding your breath under water and having competitions with your friends! For this test you don’t need to get in a pool, but you do need to take a deep breath and see how long you can hold it in. Don’t pass out please! If you can hold it for 50-60 seconds then you are considered to be in good health and to have a good capacity. Of course, these tests are better done with someone else who can watch how the rest of your body is responding to the exercise. It’s no good if while you are holding your breath you are also tensing up through the shoulders and neck, you should be able to perform these tasks with ease, not with tension or awkwardness.

It is interesting to note that abdominal muscles that are too tight can inhibit the freedom of the diaphragm and can in fact cause more anxiousness with deep breathing rather than a sense of relaxation. So, don’t worry about letting your belly hang loose when working on your breathing exercises. The same can be said about tight neck muscles, such as we see with a forward head carriage, since the anterior neck muscles are our secondary respiratory muscles. If this is the case for you, you might want to do the Serenity Roll exercise. Sitting, bring your chin to your chest and exhale fully. Inhale deeply as you roll your head to one shoulder. Exhale as you return to centre. Repeat to the other side, and for about 10 repetitions. Ensure that you are only rolling along the front and avoid tilting your head backwards, and stop at any point of pain, discomfort, or dizziness. This exercise helps relax the neck muscles and to retrain the natural relationship between breathing and the secondary respiratory muscles.

Getting proper oxygen (read: our body’s #1 life force) throughout the body, and the elimination of toxins out of the body, will without a doubt help improve your overall well-being and contribute to a healthier mental state.