The Rhythm of the Breath: a barometer of your well-being
There’s an amazing energy shift in a room when the people in your yoga class drop into and influence the rhythm of their own breath. You don't have to be the teacher to be aware of this shift, anyone who is present experiences it and it makes me smile when I turn to them and silently mouth “ can you feel this ?“. Immediately I get the wide eyed, affirmative nod of “ oh yes and wow”
It happened recently when teaching a Sales Force Team at an early morning Yoga session. I had themed the class around solutions to ease the tension and stress created by standing “on the job” for over 8 hours a day. Prolonged standing is associated with short-term adverse health issues including fatigue, leg cramps and backaches, which can affect job performance and cause significant discomfort. A study published in Human Factors suggests that this type of sustained long-lasting muscle fatigue may contribute to musculoskeletal disorders and back pain.
From the outside looking in, that group of people lying on their backs, knees bent, eyes closed with their hands over their abdomen would appear to be inactive and certainly not doing anything dynamic. However they were tuning into and positively influencing a thing we take for granted and repeat on average 23,000 times a day — the breath. In particular, they were practicing deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. A simple breathing technique which requires watching the rise and fall of the belly as you slowly and deeply inhale and exhale through the nose.
Deep abdominal breathing has many benefits, in this class I introduced it to
Trigger parasympathetic dominance — the part of the autonomic nervous system that governs rest, digest and regeneration — the relaxation response. Learning how to initiate the relaxation response through deep abdominal breathing gives us a tool to help reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, increase a sense of well-being and turn off the overactive sympathetic nervous system, the flight-or-flight or stress response.
Help the respiratory system work more efficiently. Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange - that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. It also help slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilise blood pressure.
Help tone the deep core muscles and improve posture. With abdominal breathing the diaphragm works together with the pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis, obliques and rectus abdominis) and back muscles (multifidus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and more) to pre-activate and provide support to the body during movement. Together, these muscles are important muscles for healthy pain-free movement patterns.
We could all benefit from taking time to practice deep abdominal breathing even for just a few minutes a day. Many of us will feel its unnatural especially when chest (thoracic ) or clavicular (stress) breathing is your norm. Chest and clavicular breathing can have negative consequences if overused or used exclusively. They are shallow breathing patterns which activate the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight or stress response in the body.
Overusing the chest muscles for breathing is a subtle but major cause of escalating stress, tension and anxiety. Clavicular breathing recruits the muscles of the upper torso and neck. This isolated use of these muscles for breathing is most commonly seen in people who have asthma or lung disease but if you have adopted that rounded, forward head, turtle shape posture while in front of a computer or looking into your devices you could be also in a clavicular breathing pattern. Think of how your shoulders fly up towards your ears when a sudden loud noise goes off. Imagine holding that tension in your neck and shoulders constantly while you go about your day to day life — that’s clavicular breathing.
I like to think of the rhythm of the breath as a barometer of your wellbeing. Deep, slow breathing brings calm, tranquil, free from disturbance conditions, shallow breathing, a sign of stress and turbulent times. A few minutes a day using some of the 23,000 breaths we take to enhance the connection to abdominal breathing is a simple and free way to help reduce stress, muscle tension, improve posture, tone the core muscles - positively change your well-being.
Finally, that energy shift in the class - a definite sign that calm, tranquil, free from disturbance conditions were present — its like the room, the people, the space were cocooned in a living breathing gigantic comfort blanket.