About 3 years ago, my little boys became enamored with a Nickelodeon series called “Avatar, The Last Air Bender.” Luckily for me it had enough adult entertainment and meaningful messages that it became our favorite family program to watch. In this series there are people who control the 4 elements, earth, air, fire and water. Often we would get into discussions about which element we would choose if given the chance.
I chose air. Air is all around us, it is available to us unless we are in space or stuck in a vacuum. It is vital to our being so much so that as soon as our breath stops, we have only seconds to live. It is also our link to the outside world.
Breathing helps to regulate our heart beat, our emotions, and is key to supplying every living cell in our body with oxygen. Without it, we would not survive. Yet we never stop to think about our breathing. It keeps going no matter what we are doing. We don’t think about it, inhale and exhale naturally.
If you have done any guiding meditation you will note the first thing the instructor says is to “Breathe in, breathe out. Follow the breath in; follow the breath out. Clear your thoughts and just focus on your breath.” Do you know why they tell you to focus on your breath? Well, one reason is our vitality. We came into this world and took our first breath and we will leave with our last. It is a way of connecting to the self and clueing into our emotional state. If we are charged, we breathe shallow and rapidly. Our mind is racing - panicking almost - and sending our nervous system into flight or flight. You may actually be reading this and breathing shallow unknowingly. Most people do.
When I ask clients to focus on breath and take a big breath and become present, I sometimes see a struggle. They can’t take a deep breath. There is no space for them to do so. Is this lack of space created by faulty movement patterns, sitting over a computer, or texting endless hours hunched over? Is it from perceived threats of our sympathetic nervous system? Is it a holding pattern, “I can keep it together, just power through?”
Mind or body will affect our breath. If you’ve read my previous posts you know how I continue to point out how the mind and body are not separate but intertwined in our thoughts and actions. There is this wonderful book called the Anatomy of Breathing, by Blandine Calais-Germain. This book is devoted to taking a deeper look into the anatomical structures and forces that affect our breathing from the finer movement of the cranial bones to internal organs and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the capillary walls. She writes, “ The act of breathing permits interactions between two levels. On the one hand, it is mostly unconscious and automatic. It influences our actions and our emotions and at the same time is influenced by them. On the other hand, it is an action that one can influence in a conscious, voluntary manner, by changing it in various ways, with consequences on many different levels.”
Respiration’s primary goal is to exchange gases within our bodies to the outside world. Simply, we take oxygen into our body an - essential element of life - and we exchange it with the byproduct of carbon dioxide. There are several anatomical structures involved in breathing. The boney structures of the spine, ribcage and pelvis are the largest and most involved. More deeply, the muscles around and attached to those structures, including the internal and external costal muscles of the ribcage, the scalenes of the neck, the diaphragm of the abdominal cavity as well as our transverse abdominis and pelvic floor.
The ribcage serves as a protector of our most vital organs the heart and the lungs. The exchange of gases does not just involve the lungs but this relationship is strongly intertwined and cannot be eliminated from the role of our heart. The cardiovascular system carries oxygenated blood away from the heart to the body and returns deoxygenated blood back to the heart. However, without getting into some anatomy and physiology lecture, I shall simplify. Upon inhalation, the vital element of oxygen has to travel into our lungs which do the job of sending it to our blood system so that it can be carried to our organs, our muscles, fascia, and anything else that requires it. You could say the circulatory system is a vast network of messengers carrying product and bi product. Our respiratory system is our connection with the outside world pulling in elements such as oxygen and pushing others out. So the ribcage is protecting the two major players in life, the heart and lungs.
We have all sat down and eaten ribs before at a 4th of July picnic or other summer BBQ. So what do you think your chewing on? Sorry my fellow vegetarians, but that tasty meat is the muscles that help our respiratory process. They allow the ribcage to expand and contract to take in air and push it out. They move the bones in such a way to allow the air to flow freely. Take a moment and hold your ribcage as still as possible and try to take a breath in…..Ugh! These muscles although small are constantly working with each breath we take. They work along side another major player, the MVP of respiration…yep you guessed it, the diaphragm. That large muscle shaped like an umbrella sitting on top of our abdominal cavity contracting downward and upward thousands of times each day. The diaphragm sits just underneath the lung and heart and separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. There is a continuous connection between these cavities. It is widely known that altering your breathing and deep meditation can help with stress, a major factor in heart disease.
The diaphragm moves down on inhalation and the abdomen and it’s contents push down and out, the pelvic floor is like a little trampoline absorbing the contents as they move down then pushing them back up. Inhalation is the active phase of breathing while exhalation is the relaxation phase of breathing. That is why sometimes it’s harder to take a deep inhale because it is more active and may feel like work, especially if certain structures are stuck.
Try this: If you are having a hard time breathing in, focus on exhaling. Push the air out strongly like a deep and heavy sigh make sure you get all the air out, your inhale will come automatically and fully. It will feel a little easier. You’re working with that relationship between the two cavities. Sometimes it may be easier to force something out. What goes out must come back in.
There are many more structural elements to breathing, it’s as if the whole body is involved. In fact cellular respiration by definition is a set of metabolic processes in the exchange of nutrients into waste products. Even our cells breathe. But how can our mind affect our breathing? Our mind affects all aspects of our internal structures. A perceived threat or anytime we are anxious and nervous by events in life can all affect our breathing, but usually its our thoughts about those events, how we perceive something that causes this. The brain via the nerves will turn on the “fight” or “flight” response, which could result in faster heart and breathing rates, increase in blood pressure, holding and tensing muscular patterns etc. Keep in mind, in our modern age we actually don’t have many real threats, at least not the ones our ancestors encountered hence the reason its called the “fight” or “flight” response.” The great thing about this is we can change perceived threats by either changing the way we “think” about them or we can begin to change our mind by adjusting our bodies response to tell the mind, ”Hey, it’s OK, we are in no real danger here.”
One way to do this is to relax your butt. If you tighten your pelvic floor, there goes your base of breathing. The trampoline that allows the breath to fully form and rebound. It takes just a second of tightening your butt and there you are in a state of stress. Wonder why people use the terminology, “tight ass?” I have a theory of why people clench there. When we are fearful our ancestral DNA tells us to protect vital organs so clenching and folding in on oneself to protect the abdominal cavity is automatic. This past fall I experienced this hands on when I went to an amusement park with my kids. Every time that roller coaster went down the rails fast, I clenched my butt and pulled my stomach in. I was literally trying to protect my insides. How often do you feel like your day is a metaphorical roller coaster? We don’t even realize we are clenching down there. Take a moment now and feel if you are clenching. If you are take a full breath, let the belly distend down and outward and see if you can feel the downward pressure upon your pelvic floor. Play around in your head with the trampoline image. Now if you feel you have got it, try the opposite by clenching your buttocks tightly and try and take a deep breath. Do you notice the difference? Warning: it may be wise to urinate before trying this.
Another way to release tension and aim towards better breathing is to open the back of your throat. In yoga they call this the Ujjayi breath. Breath through your nose fully opening up the back of the throat, then exhale with the sound of “Haah” in the back of your throat but keep your lips lightly closed. If this seems challenging, try to imagine dry heaving (I know not a lovely thought) but it works the same muscles of the throat onthe exhale. We hold a lot of tension in the back of our throat and jaw, something people with TMJ know a lot about. When we clench down in our mouth we constrict the muscles in the back of our neck and throat, this closes off our airway. The diaphragm cannot move down fully and so the pelvic floor will never “spring” into action. If we breathe by fully opening our air passageways it makes it much easier for the rest of respiratory muscles do their job.
Lastly, there is also an emotional aspect to breath. I call it “letting go.” If either of these techniques don’t work for you, take some time and dive deep into what may be bothering you or keeping you from taking a deeper breath. Sometimes we don’t want to face the things that are there, but again these are just thoughts about an event that has already passed or an idea about a future event. When I feel this way, as we all do from time to time instead of facing something unpleasurable, I focus on what lights my life: my kids, my family, the passion I have for my work, a beautiful sunset. I try to think about being in the moment, not anticipating the future or worrying about the past. We can conjure up any source of happy thoughts or moment at any time. Try it and see if your breath changes.
Ideally, we can change the way in which we think about something, work on being present and engaged, and soften our attitudes towards things. We can honor our body’s wonderful mechanics that keep us moving and alive by doing our breathing exercises to help the structures involved stay healthy and moving.
Breath is so vital, the air around us that we breathe is so important to how we live but also how we perceive and interact with our environments. Joseph Pilates used to call it the “internal shower.” It cleanses us. It fuels us. It is our relationship to our outside world. It is a super power.
Stop for a moment, take a breath, enjoy what it is. Focus on the breath and be glad to be present and alive!