Lisa Schneider RMT, CranioSacral TherapyMind/Body, Stress

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Hopefully you all are enjoying a wonderful, carefree summer of vacations and downtime. As most of us take this time to relax and decompress, I thought it would be helpful to offer a little exercise in diaphragmatic breathing (AKA belly breathing), that if practiced now, can help to prepare you for the busyness that September brings. Not only is diaphragmatic breathing the natural way to breathe, practicing it daily can be a helpful tool for mindfulness by setting aside some time each day to just focus on your breath.

We are born knowing how to breathe diaphragmatically, but through learned behavior or because life makes us stressed, tense or anxious, our breathing style can become more rapid and shallow as we fall into a pattern of using only our upper chest to get air in. Not only is this an inefficient way of getting oxygen into our bodies, breathing shallowly and rapidly can cause:

  • Chronic tightening of the muscles of the neck; namely the scalenes and sternocleidomastoids (SCMs) which are accessory breathing muscles and are meant to engage only in deep breathing. This can lead to postural dysfunction and headaches

  • Anxiety, which can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle that in turn creates more anxiety

  • Activation/reinforcement of the sympathetic state (fight or flight) and deactivation of the parasympathetic state (rest or digest)

  • Also, shallow breathing causes our diaphragm and abdominal muscles to get tense, interfering with the normal contraction of the diaphragm, which affects the motility of our digestive system. (Think of the diaphragm as a piston; with its downward force, it helps to “massage” the digestive organs, helping food and gases move through more effectively.)

To start, here’s an exercise to check how you currently breathe:

  • While lying down, place one hand on your chest and one hand over your belly button

  • Without trying to change anything, notice your hand(s) moving as you breathe in and out

If you are using your diaphragm to breathe, the hand on your stomach will move. If you are using your accessory muscles to breathe, the hand on your chest will move. The goal is to be able to take normal breaths without the hand on your chest moving up and down.

Here is an exercise to help you relearn diaphragmatic breathing (you can do the exercise lying down, sitting or standing, but I recommend doing the exercise lying down to start):

  • Place one hand over your belly button and the other on your chest

  • Close your eyes and imagine a balloon inside your abdomen and each time you breathe in, envision the balloon filling with air three dimensionally

  • Feel the hand on your abdomen rise as the balloon fills and imagine the air also gently expanding the sides and back of your lower ribs. You should not feel much movement (if any) through the hand on your chest

  • Each time you breathe out imagine the balloon collapsing

Do this exercise with full, but not too deep of breaths (as the upper chest will move a lot in deep breathing so you can get in as much air as possible).

Practice this exercise at least twice daily as breathing is so automatic, that you need to regularly retrain your pathways to unlearn your old patterns in order to be able to breathe regularily the proper way. Morning and night are good times to practice so you can both set an intention to be mindful and breathe properly for the day and then to also calm the mind before sleep. In addition, it’s good practice to notice times during the day when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed and see what your breathing is doing to correct it. This new way of breathing will likely feel unnatural at first, but practice makes perfect and the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Happy breathing!

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