Breathing does a whole lot more than just keep you alive.
Did you know for example that your main “breathing muscle”, the diaphragm, is closely connected to the deep abdominals which support your spine? So if you have back pain, and are practicing abdominal work to support your painful spine, you need your diaphragm to be working properly.
Not sure where your diaphragm is?
Imagine that your rib cage is a barrel containing your lungs, but instead of its base being made of wood or bone, it is made of muscle. This is your diaphragm. Now imagine that this muscle is a bit like a trampoline, so it can stretch down and pop back up again. As it stretches down, it creates more space in the barrel, and this is what draws air into your lungs. As it relaxes, there is less space available in the barrel, so the lungs empty and you breathe out.
Now here’s the interesting bit. Imagine that your rib cage barrel is sitting on another large barrel, which has its base around the bottom of your pelvis. Where the walls of the first barrel was made from your ribs, the walls of this barrel are made from the muscles around your torso. Its top is the diaphragm, and its bottom is made of a network of muscles called the pelvic floor.
As the diaphragm contracts and presses downwards, it increases the space in the rib cage barrel so that we breathe in, but it also presses downwards into the torso barrel below it, which increases the pressure in it. When everything is working normally, these small changes in pressure are balanced out by the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor, so they are constantly coordinating themselves to maintain an ideal level of pressure, which in turn helps to support the spine.
People who take shallow, rapid breaths can’t use their diaphragm effectively to contribute to this support pressure for their spines. People who hold their breath habitually can have the opposite problem – too much pressure in the torso barrel can start to press on the walls of the barrel. If these muscles are under constant pressure, break down can occur, so problems like incontinence when coughing or sneezing, and even hernias can arise.
But surely we know how to breath? Isn’t it natural?
We all assume that we know how to breathe – we have been doing it all our lives, haven’t we?
Actually we can breathe in so many ways. For example, stressed people can find themselves “out of breath” for no reason, but actually are not breathing out effectively, so there is no room for more air to come in.
Think that this might be you?
Take a moment to slowly let the air out through your mouth – let your lungs empty without straining or squeezing before drawing your next breath. Then allow the breath to come in naturally without straining, and again, allow your lungs to empty by slowly letting the air pass out through your lips. You may gain a greater sense of your feet on the floor or your pelvis on the seat as you do this.
Some of us try to squeeze the air out of our lungs using our abdominals. This muscle tension is so habitual that you don’t notice it, but actually unless you are really exercising hard, it is just another indicator of stress that is getting in the way of your diaphragm working properly.
Take a moment and place your hands on your belly. Breathe normally– are your abdominals relaxed? See what happens if you imagine your diaphragm stretching down to suck the air in, and then relaxing and rising to gently press the air out.
Some of us breathe only with the upper part of our lungs, but the largest part of the lungs is the lowest part.
Take a moment to explore this. Place a hand on the centre of your upper chest and one over the bottom of your rib cage. Breathe in, and feel what happens under your hands. If your upper hand moves more than your bottom hand, or it moves upwards, you are only using the smallest part of your lungs. Everything in your body works better with oxygen, and you are missing the biggest area for oxygen to make it into your blood stream!
Now place your hands around your waist, and gradually work them upwards until they cover your lower ribs. Place your fingers to the front and your thumbs to the back. The space between your fingers and your thumb will be wrapped around the side of your rib cage. Take a large breath in. Your ribs should move out into the space between your fingers and thumb. If they didn’t, it is likely that you felt your chest move upwards, or forward into your fingers.
Breathe quietly, and notice whether your ribs move underneath your hands. You should see your fingers move slightly apart as you breathe in. Gradually increase the size of your inwards breath. You should start to feel your ribs move outwards and slightly upwards as you breathe in, and feel them move back down and in as you breathe out. Now take a full breath in: make sure that the ribs move into that space between your fingers and thumb. Return to normal breathing.