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What is important to know about breathing?

The most important thing to know about breathing is that if you are doing it right now, you are already doing a good job! That may sound trite, but we tend to put all kinds of pressure on ourselves to do everything right, and breathing shouldn’t become another source of failure to perform. Different activities require different breathing strategies, and while it’s good to practice different ways of breathing so that your body can adapt and respond to all the demands of daily living, there is no one strategy that is right for every situation.

The mechanics of breathing are intimately related to posture. While one muscle, the diaphragm, is always the main muscle of respiration, your posture determines what shape your breath takes in your body. You are already using your diaphragm every time you take a breath, but by exploring the relationship between breathing and posture you can bring mobility to different parts of your body.

So then, what is diaphragmatic breathing?

When people talk about diaphragmatic breathing, they are usually referring to breathing in a way that causes the belly to expand while the chest remains still. Another common label for this is “belly breathing”. This type of breathing happens when you are at rest or sleeping, when your posture is “neutral” and relaxed, and you are not exerting yourself. Practicing belly breathing can help your body and your mind relax, but you’re not doing anything wrong if you’re not breathing that way all the time – it’s not always appropriate. It’s important to note that focusing on breathing is not helpful for everyone – for some people, focusing on the breath can actually exacerbate feelings of anxiety or panic. If this is true for you, it might be a good idea to seek out a therapist who can help you with different types of grounding exercises.

The diaphragm creates breath by altering the size and shape of the thoracic and abdominal cavities. When the diaphragm contracts, it either lifts the ribs or presses down into the abdominal cavity, increasing the volume of the lungs and causing air to rush in to the new low pressure environment inside the body. 

Different postures will mean that different parts of the body will expand or move with the breath, because of the way postural muscles stabilize the ribs and abdomen. Just like there is no one way to breathe that is appropriate for every activity, there is no one posture that is always best. Both breathing and posture should be dynamic and able to respond to the various demands of day to day life. That being said, spending a lot of time bent over a desk can lead to prolonged shallow breathing, and patterns of muscle tension that result in discomfort or pain for a lot of people. Practicing a balanced and supported posture, and belly breathing, can help keep you alert and comfortable as you get your work done.

With that background out of the way, here are two exercises that can help develop your awareness of the relationship between your posture and your breath.

Seated postural exercise

  • Come into a comfortable seated position, cross legged or on a chair/stool. 
  • Take a few deep breaths and create slight tension through your postural muscles. To know where to create that tension, picture your spine in profile – it has 4 curves: your neck and low back are convex towards the front of your body, and your thoracic spine (where your ribs attach) and sacrum are convex towards the back of your body. If you wanted to straighten these curves and lengthen your spine, you would tighten the muscles on the convex sides, so, starting from the bottom, that would be your glutes, your abdominals, the muscles between your shoulder blades, and the deep neck flexors in the front of your neck. 
  • Lean forward, back, and side to side, arch your back in and out, to start developing a sense of balance and stability from your sit bones to the crown of your head. Focus on lengthening and stabilizing your spine. Take as much time as you need. 
  • Raise your shoulders to your ears, and roll them forward a few times, then backward. 
  • Take deep breaths as you are shifting, and feel how your breath creates flexion and extension in your spine – a little bit of flexion as you exhale, and a slight extension as you inhale.

This is a great exercise to both start and end your day with. Most of us spend our days in pretty sedentary activities, and don’t get a lot of opportunity to move our spines through their full ranges. Doing some postural meditation in the morning helps you to be more mindful of your posture throughout the day, and doing it at the end of the day is a nice way to unwind, literally, from the postures you’ve been holding all day.

Belly breathing exercise

  • Lay on your back on the floor. Your legs can be extended straight out, or you can have your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent, or you can place a pillow under your knees to support them in a slightly bent position. For most people, letting your head rest on the floor with no pillow is best, but if that’s not comfortable you can place a pillow under your head as well. 
  • Bring one hand to rest on your chest, and one hand on your belly just below the bottom of your rib cage. Take a few deep breaths and notice which hand moves more – in this position, it should be the hand on your belly.
  • As you inhale, keep your chest still and let your breath expand your abdomen, raising the hand on your belly.
  • As you exhale, squeeze your abdominal muscles slightly to push the air out of your lungs. You don’t need to completely empty your lungs, keep it gentle and relaxed.
  • Hang out here for as long as you like!

Whether you’re working from home or on the frontline, taking a few minutes to tune in to your body in the present moment can help you to stay resilient and find rest amidst the stress you may be feeling during this time of limited activity and reduced social contacts. Belly breathing won’t take the place of hugging loved ones, but it can help keep you grounded in the meantime.

If you need a hand to help you destress and unwind, Rebecca is available for massage therapy appointments at Safe Harbour Therapy. Find her booking info on the webpage, follow her on Instagram @rebeccafroese.rmt, email, or reach her by phone at (204) 880-4286.