Our breath represents life and is the basic movement pattern that enables us to exist and experience. Just as breathing is our most primal, natural movement pattern, so is dysfunctional breathing our most significant aberrant movement pattern. Our primary muscle of respiration, the thoracic diaphragm, is central to our functional core. Its ability to move freely has far reaching consequences on our health from posture, to movement, to spinal stability and visceral function as well as mental health and wellbeing. Breathing is essential to keep us alive but breathing well is essential to good health!
The automatic and natural movement of the breath can be unconsciously altered by many different factors. Shock, injury, emotional and physical pain, anxiety, depression, stress and poor posture all play a significant role in affecting the pattern of our breathing. Dysfunctional breathing patterns often occur after injury as a protective mechanism. Unfortunately, numerous studies support that faulty breathing patterns often persist well beyond the relief of pain and symptoms. Faulty breathing can contribute to and be the perpetuating factor in core instability, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headaches, neck, shoulder, chest, thorax and low back pain, shortness of breath, asthma, acid reflux, hiatal hernia and liver congestion! More on these issues in another post…
The Anatomy & Function
The thoracic diaphragm muscle is responsible for 75% of the air we inspire in normal respiration. Besides its vital role in respiration, your diaphragm also executes the life-saving reflexes of coughing, sneezing, vomiting and forced excretion including giving birth. When relaxed the diaphragm sits like two domes separating the organs of the thoracic cavity from those of the abdomen. It forms a continuous attachment around the inferior borders of the sternum and ribcage to attach via two slips (crura) to the bodies of the first to the third lumbar vertebrae. This circle of muscle fibres converges onto a central tendon. Three openings or hiatus allow for the passage of blood via the vena cava and aorta and food and water via the esophagus. In this way the diaphragm acts as a portal for the passage of our vital fluids.
When we breathe in the diaphragm contracts, flattens and the outer edges of the domes descend downward. This expands the lower part of the ribcage horizontally, stretching the lung tissue within its cage and decreasing the pressure within the lungs. The small muscles between every pair of ribs, the external intercostal muscles, aid the diaphragm in lifting the ribs in a bucket-handle action and the sternum in a pump-handle movement, further increasing the volume of the ribcage to create a vacuum of air inward. Exhalation happens as the diaphragm muscle relaxes and recoils back up toward the lungs. When we breathe out, the internal layer of intercostal muscles assist to deflate the ribcage and the pressure inside the lungs decreases forcing air out.
What is natural when we breathe depends on what we are or are not doing! The innate intelligence of our body will adjust our breathing according to its demands. Our body is intelligently efficient and only uses the amount of energy and oxygen required to maintain our basal metabolism. This means that when we are inactive our breath is generally shallow with only gentle, minimal movement of the ribs. For example, when we are deeply relaxed as in Shavasana (the corpse posture), there is only a very small amount of movement around the navel. When relaxed our breath is mainly abdominal breathing. With the abdominal muscles relaxed the majority of the movement from the diaphragm descending as we breathe in creates movement in the abdomen. The exception is in the final trimester of pregnancy and obesity when the abdomen is already fully distended. For some it is difficult to fully relax the abdominal muscles and/or to allow the diaphragm its full excursion. An inability to abdominal breath can be a sign of increase anxiety levels. Abdominal breathing is the best technique to enhance deeper levels of relaxation.
Try this: Lying face-up relax your abdominal muscles completely. Take a slow deep breath in. Look for the formation of a well-rounded dome shape of the abdomen from the costal arch (in the centre where the ribs finish) to the pubic bone. On exhalation the abdomen will deflate. A hollowing or ‘tenting’ below the costal arch instead of a dome shape indicates an inability of the diaphragm muscle to fully descend.
When we are sitting upright, standing or active we usually contract our abdominal muscles to hold and support our trunk. Contracting the abdominal muscles restricts the distention of the abdomen from the pressure of the diaphragm descending and instead demands that there is more movement of the ribcage. The ribs will move out to the sides to allow the lungs space to fill. This is referred to as lateral or horizontal breathing. Try strongly engaging your abdominal muscles but without flexing your trunk. Now take a slow full inhalation and notice the greater excursion of the ribs laterally. To have good movement of the ribs when breathing you also need to have good abdominal muscle tone. The other factor required for lateral breathing is to have a mobile ribcage. Chronic faulty breathing patterns and/or a history of asthma or other respiratory disease often leads to a fixated ribcage where the ribs are immobile at their costo-vertebral joints (where the ribs articulate with the thoracic vertebrae).
When practicing yoga techniques of asana, pranayama and meditation we usually engage our bandhas. With Uddiyana Bandha engaged the lowest portion of our abdominal muscles has increased tone. This shifts the accent of the diaphragm’s movement from the lower to the upper abdomen and especially into the ribcage. The more strenuous the asana the more abdominal muscle contraction and thereby less movement in the abdomen. However, please note that lateral breathing does not always increase with more exertion as the rate of breath often becomes faster and correspondingly not as deep.
Practice lateral breathing by placing your hands on the lower part of your ribcage to stimulate your awareness of this area. Engaging your abdominal muscles encourage horizontal, 360-degree movement with each inhalation. Look for a bucket-handle action at the sides and a pump-handle movement of the sternum. On the other hand, vertical movement of the ribcage suggests that the accessory muscles of respiration in the neck are overactive and dominating inspiration. This is termed ‘chest breathing’. Even chest breathing is natural when we are hyperventilating and/or stressed. In this way our body quickly gets air into the lungs. However, if this is our default way of breathing it will perpetuate the stress response as this breathing patterns signals our nervous system that a stressor is present. Ultimately, this can lead to feelings of anxiety.
Restoring Natural Breathing
Breathing does not happen because our muscles pull and push air into and out of our lungs but is triggered by a respiratory centre in our brain stem (the reptilian part of our brain). Together, with pressure gradients and gas concentrations between the atmosphere that surrounds us and in our lungs, a continuous flow of air exchange is maintained. The muscles that attach to our ribcage expand and deflate our chest to enhance our respiration. The function of the diaphragm is under neurological control and it is disruption of its natural rhythm that causes dysfunction. The unique voluntary control of this otherwise involuntary action enables us to modify and heal our breathing patterns. If our breathing has been disrupted temporarily or even long-term, the practice of abdominal and lateral breathing is an important step onto the path of allowing the breath to return to its natural rhythms.
On our inhalation our heart rate naturally increases to help the lungs fill faster that we can efficiently take in more oxygen. On our exhalation heart rate slows down as oxygen is delivered to the cells. In this way a longer exhalation has a calming effect on the nervous system and brings health generating benefits to all our tissues. Notice that when we release stress with a sigh we take a shorter inhale with a long exhale. Look out for faulty breathing patterns with a heavy inhale with a short exhale.
The miracle of our existence is continuously proven with every breath… we are being breathed! From our first breath at birth to our final expiration our breath continues in an unbroken continuum providing us with this gift of Life. In the Greek and Kabbalistic traditions inspiration is described as breathing in God, who is breathing life into us. Remembrance and full recognition of this alone illuminates the breath, body and spirit and restores our breath to its natural rhythm.
Always with you on the mat
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