3 Ways to Improve Your Breathing and Health

It’s that time of year when people are beginning to develop winter colds. Others are thinking ahead to preparing their taxes (only 2 months to go in the US). Both colds and psychological stress can cause you to breathe shallowly. Learning to breathe deeply – a skill many people lose over time due to an habituation to stress, not only helps those who are fighting off a cold, but those dealing with chronic conditions (asthma, sinusitis, anxiety) that tend to inhibit the ability to breathe deeply and fully.

Improved breathing helps reduce anxiety, promotes oxygenation of the entire body, produces endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), enhances muscle function, helps to lower blood pressure, promotes creativity and mental focus, and increases metabolism.

Ideally here’s what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, you’re breathing shallowly. Shallow breathing adversely affects your entire body – the brain, heart, and functioning of your internal organs. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease as well.

I’m always amazed at how, when I’m stressed or mentally hijacked by a negative thought or scenario, a long, deep breath and relaxing my jaw changes everything. It highlights for me how deeply primal it is to “hunker down” when we allow emotional or mental stress (What if it doesn’t work out? What will I do then?) to take over.

Try this for improved breathing

  1. Let your abdominal muscles relax. Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Put your hand on your lower belly and gently inhale. Notice where your breath goes automatically without trying to change anything. Then repeat this several times as you allow the abdominal muscles to relax and soften as you inhale rather than sucking them in. Notice how the belly rises and falls. Allow the back to relax.  Repeat this 8-10 times.
  2. Bring attention to your ribs. The little muscles between them, called the intercostal muscles, act like the fabric in a bellows. If the fabric is tight, the bellows won’t expand to suck the air in. The same goes for the ribs. Lie on your side, as in the photo on the right. Put your hand on your ribs and breathe deeply into your ribs 6-8 times. Let them expand like a bellows. Then lie on your back and notice the difference in sensation between both sides of your ribs.
  3. The Flower
  4. Consider your reflexive response to worry and fear. This reflex, called the Red Light Reflex (or Startle Reflex), is involuntary and instantaneous. In the photo on the right, you will see fans cringing in response to the baseball bat that is flying toward them. The Red Light Reflex causes you to tighten the belly, hunch the shoulders and withdraw inward out of real or perceived fear. It can save you from harm (as in the photo), yet, if habituated, it can inhibit breathing, lymphatic flow and drainage, neck pain and result in stooped, collapsed posture.

Over time many people lose the natural function of relaxed breathing. The first place to start on the road to fuller, deeper breathing is by learning to relax the muscles of the center of the body.



Top Four Myths About Back Pain

Myth #1: Back pain comes with old age.

Back pain is not age related. I’ve worked with nine-year-olds, teenagers, and senior citizens who all suffered from back pain. It’s not one’s age that makes the difference, but the extent to which one habituates to stress over time. We all respond to daily stress in our lives with very specific muscular reflex patterns.  If triggered consistently enough, these reflexes become habituated, “unconscious,” and involuntary. This condition is called Sensory Motor Amnesia, and it is one of the biggest sources of chronic back pain. Back pain is easily reversible, however, with simple retraining of the brain’s control of the muscles, such as is done with Clinical Hanna Somatic Education.

Myth #2: If there’s nothing wrong on the diagnostics, “it’s all in your head.”

There is a popular belief that back pain is emotionally based, so when diagnostics are clear, the pain is determined to be all in your head. Dr. John Sarno’s book, Mind Over Back Pain, is one such example of that belief. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. While it is true that emotional and mental stress can create muscular tension (because the brain responds to stress, therefore the muscles respond to stress), it does not mean that wishful thinking and relaxation therapy will always work. When a stressful event (emotional stress, accidents, injuries, surgeries, or daily repetitive tasks) occurs, the brain reacts and contracts the muscles. This is how Sensory Motor Amnesia is established in your muscles. Once this occurs, you must change the state of your muscles for the long term through pandiculation and Somatic Exercises (the brain level), not only through relaxation therapy (the mind level).

Myth #3: Abdominal strengthening cures back pain.

This is one of the most popular and misguided beliefs about back pain. Having a conditioned core that supports your entire structure is a good thing, however, abdominal strengthening does not cure back pain. In fact, repetitious sit-ups and leg lifts can actually make your back tighter, thus deepening your pain. I’ve worked with plenty of athletes, dancers, yoga teachers, even Pilates teachers, who have strong abdominals and back pain. Back pain is more rapidly cured through sensory motor training, which retrains your brain to regain both sensation and control of your muscles and movement. Through this process you develop awareness of how the way in which you move (or don’t move) affects your body. When you learn to move more efficiently and effortlessly, back pain will be a thing of the past.

Myth #4: Back pain means that your back muscles are weak.

Actually, the truth is that most of the time the back muscles are usually too strong and tight that they can no longer be properly engaged. Feel your back muscles with your hand. If they’re hard and tense, there’s nothing weak about them. Strengthening back muscles when they are involuntarily contracted can often make the problem worse. Chronically contracted muscles also do not get proper oxygen and blood flow, which, in turn, creates pain. Learn to voluntarily relax, release and control your back muscles through pandiculation and your pain will go away.

To learn how to release and relax the muscles that contribute to chronic back pain, check out my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement.

Applied Somatics: How Awareness Helps You Live Pain-Free

Discover Awareness.

The emails I most often receive from customers and clients praise Hanna Somatics, the Essential Somatics® Pain-Free series DVDs, and my book, Move Without Pain. Every once in a while I will get an email stating, “I do my daily exercises and then the pain comes back about four hours later… what am I doing wrong?”

It’s not that they’re doing something “wrong” – but there is something they need to remember: It is essential to apply somatic awareness to your daily movement habits in order to achieve long-term muscle pain relief and improved muscle function.

To quote Thomas Hanna, from his book, Somatics:

The most important thing for you to remember is that Somatic Exercises change your muscular system by changing your central nervous system. If you do not remember this important fact, their effectiveness will be diminished for you.

This says it all. You are literally changing the way in which your brain controls your muscles, movement and even your sense of Self. Many people “do” their Somatic Exercises, then get up and resume their daily activities and movements without awareness. It is important to be aware of:

  • How you WALK. Are you heavy on your feet, heel-striking, or lumbering from side to side?
  • How you SIT. Do you sit into one hip? Do you slouch and collapse over your computer? Do you arch your back when trying to sit up straight?
  • How you BREATHE. Are you a “breath holder?” Do you breathe from your chest and forget to relax your belly?
  • How you STAND – when you’re not thinking about it. Do you stand into one hip? Is your back over-arched? Do you stand tall, grounded into your feet?
  • How you RESPOND EMOTIONALLY and the muscular response you experience in your body. Do you stop breathing when you’re angry? Do you clench your jaw or grind your teeth when you’re stressed? Do you hunch your shoulders when you’re afraid?

IMG_1402There is a lot of  learning that takes place when you are on your Somatics mat with your eyes closed, and brain focused on your internal awareness and movement of your body:

  • Arch and flatten teaches you to sense the gentle movement of the back muscles and relaxation of the belly.
  • The side bend teaches you to contract and lengthen the waist muscles so your hips move more easily.
    The walking exercises encourage gentle rocking and rolling the pelvis, which helps you regain a balanced gait.

These moments of awareness are opportunities for learning that, when applied to your daily life, create long term, substantive change in your movement once you stand back up into gravity. You are the one who can turn on the light bulb in your head. As I tell my clinical clients and students who attend my trainingsSomatic Exercises, done over time, give you the opportunity to become self-monitoring, self-aware, self-adjusting, and self-correcting.

Play the game of Awareness.

If you move through your daily Somatics routine, feel nice and relaxed, and then rush out the door, disconnecting from the learning experience you just had, then you are missing a crucial lesson of Somatics that means the difference of eliminating pain or continuing to live with it: It is OK to do your Somatic exercises, but you must apply the awareness you experience while doing the exercises to every movement you do throughout the day. LIVE your Somatics.

Try this next time you finish your Somatics routine: get up, and choose to spend the next half a day paying attention to every movement you make. When you sit in your car take a minute and notice how you’re sitting. Before you put your hands on your computer keyboard imagine how you’re going to reach for the keyboard. Make a point to look in the mirror and notice your posture. See it for what it is and then shift yourself if need be.  Before you get up out of your chair, decide how you’re going to do it. Be intentional. And when you’re feeling something emotional, notice how your body is responding as well. Just play the game of awareness and see where it takes you. Let me know how it goes!