Do you sometimes find yourself, especially in a moment of panic, not breathing or barely breathing? When pain is present, muscles often tighten, causing more constriction of nerve space. More constriction only increases the nociceptive signals being sent to your brain. We can break the pain cycle by altering some of the factors involved, including how we breathe.
Breathing is automatic but not always automatically done correctly. When we breathe incorrectly, we stress out muscles that are known as accessory breathing muscles. They are only meant to assist. When they have to carry the full load, they break down, similar to an overloaded circuit. If you look at your ribs in a mirror, the muscles that cover the ribs are serrated. These are your anterior and posterior serratus muscles. If these are not working properly, imagine how your lungs get choked off from full oxygen flow.
We are designed to initiate our breath from deep in the abdomen. The breath starts the journey in the abdomen and is directed upwards to the serratus muscles. This can only be achieved by pressing down on the diaphragm as we breathe in. That’s why the belly expands first. If your shoulders rise when you take a breath, you are overtaxing the serratus muscles and you are denying yourself a full breath.
Deep breathing eases you into a state of mindfulness. We aim to connect with sensations of the body, not numb or escape them. We help the body understand when warning pain signals are necessary and when they become redundant. We have a conversation with the body.
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is our path to healing. Notice when you exhale with awareness that your muscles naturally give way. We are not forcing anything to move. We allow the muscles to lengthen by creating the ideal environment.
Deep breathing releases endorphins. These natural feel-good chemicals change the way your body perceives pain, thus making your back muscles feel better. Notice how you feel at the end of any yoga class. Bring these endorphins off your mat and into your world through conscious breathing throughout the day.
How can you breathe correctly if you are already in pain or in high anxiety mode? This is my pet peeve. Exercises done without awareness of breath are not enough. The environment needs to be calm. Rock or pop music with bright lights is not conducive to relaxation. Would you like to witness the difference? Give yourself a quiet place for about 10 minutes and practice the following.
Start your breathing practice by standing, sitting or laying with your spine straight and long. Untuck your pelvis and extend the crown of your head as far from your feet as possible.
Then, breathe in through your nose, with your lips together. Stick your tongue to the top of your mouth.
Breathe in slowly, as if you want to carefully sip in something delightful without spilling it. To make your breath more intentional, count to 7.
To exhale, separate your teeth and lips, and make an even, controlled sigh of breath from your mouth. Exhale more forcefully and for longer than you inhaled, to completely empty your lungs. Count to 9.
When you do this, notice your body. Do not simply puff up your chest. Make sure your breath travels all the way to your pelvis.
Breathing is the start of a journey towards less pain. Incorporating a daily yoga practice will have you breathing correctly in no time. Practicing once a week will simply not do (although it is still better than not doing yoga at all). Every time you come to your mat and create awareness of breath, your body’s muscle fibers begin to ease. Longer, stronger muscles provide more space for nerves to travel freely without getting stepped on. Have you ever stepped on a stingray? Not fun! Let your nerves have the space they need. Relax your muscle fibers. Relax your brain. You are on your way to feeling better.