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Breathe in Health, Breathe out Tension

The Importance of Breathing Well

Breathing properly is probably the most important thing you can do for your own health and well-being.  I'm not trying to be morbid but the facts are:

  • after one minute without oxygen brain cells begin to die
  • after three minutes without oxygen serious brain damage is likely
  • after 10 minutes brain cells have died.
  • after 15 minutes without oxygen a person's recovery is virtually impossible. 

This is how important breathing is, and how many of us think about improving it on a daily basis? 

Exercise and Breathing

I reckon more time is spent in the gym toning the muscles, being out on a bike or running.  Yet breathing is a key ingredient to sports performance.  At least doing cardiovascular exercise, you are forcing the body to breathe in deeper than normal to supply the necessary oxygen to the muscles for energy production. 

The more relaxing approaches to exercise such as pilates and yoga  do take breath work into consideration.  Every movement is performed with the breath, usually moving into the posture on the out breath and holding it until the next out breath.  The breath allows muscles to perform in specific ways during these types of movements.  The fact the movements are slower, it means more control is required so you can literally lengthen the muscles at will.  This is why pilates and yoga are seen as complementary sports for all athletes whether rowers, runners or rugby players.  You only have to look at a body builder to see the short, tight muscles compared to a ballet dancer's torso which has longer and leaner muscles. 
The longer, and leaner the muscles, the easier it is on the joints.

Longevity Breathing

This is a Taoist breathing practice introduced to the west by a gigong teacher called Bruce Frantzis.  Its purpose is to improve the functioning of the body, centre the mind and balance the emotions.  It is not rocket science either!  A great example of this type of breathing into the belly is a baby.  Watch how everything moves in rhythm with the breath.  As their lungs fill with air, all the internal organs expand.  Look at how effective their breathing is with the amount of time they can scream and cry.  Adults would be wiped out with this amount of effort!  The goal of the Taoist breathing is to relax your belly so that it can expand and contract with your breathing.  As simple as this sounds, your focus is from below your navel, up to your diaphragm and back to where it meets the spine.  So it is the whole cylinder encompassing your liver, spleen, stomach and kidneys.  It does not include your chest or ribs.  It can take a minimum of 3 months of regular practice to enable new breathing patterns to become as natural as all other activities. 

Breathing through Pain

Breath work is also a key part of pain relief.  Pain has an annoying habit of creating muscular tension and odd posture habits.  If a disc prolapses in your back, the chances are your hips and shoulders will be uneven when you look in the mirror.  It is simply the body's way of adapting to discomfort.  The trouble is, leaving this distortion can create other painful areas.  A good habit to get in to is lying down on your back at the end of every day with your legs bent and arms out to the side at right angles like a baby in a cot.  And breathe!  Breathe out any tension in the neck, shoulders, back, hips and legs.  It really does unravel the body from the day's exertions whether mental or physical.  Especially if your day is spent in front of a computer and in a car.  Once you have relaxed the body, then you can comfortably stretch it.  There is no point stretching a tense body as you're more likely to do harm than good.

The Key Muscles:  Diaphragm & Psoas

What takes our breath away?  Not simply an attractive body on the beach.  Often we react to something in the outside world by stopping our breath.  It could be an accumulation of stress, bad news, or discomfort after physical trauma and we try to hold it at arms length by breathing in a shallow way.  By breathing in this way, we become tired, lethargic and ill.  That is why it is so important to breathe through tension in the body or while stretching.  When anyone is having a massage treatment i encourage breathing into the tight spot to release the tension.  Inevitably the area of scar tissue becomes softer and easier to break down. 

One area of the body particularly prone to tension is the diaphragm muscle.  If there is a restriction in the diaphragm or the psoas muscle which link the upper and lower body together, then there is no communication going on.  A little like a man and woman discussing the same problem at work.  The wires can become crossed.  A ballet dancer is more likely to have resilience in the diaphragm but many of us have strength and tension.  The diaphragm is like an umbrella which cushions the heart from above and the stomach from below and attached to the lower ribs.  The breath pushes this 'umbrella' up and down by moving air into and out of the lungs.  Often we have forgotten to use this muscle by holding our breath.  In addition, just behind the diaphragm is the aorta which is the main channel delivering blood to the body.  The types of conditions which can evolve from the tightening of these muscles (diaphragm and psoas) are:

  • emphysemalung disorders
  • panic attacks
  • anxiety
  • hiatal hernia
  • acid reflux
By paying attention to our breath and by learning to relax our minds, we can make huge progress with our health.
Healing Meditation CD by Kelly Howell - highly recommended by doctors in the USA and offered to patients.  I find it incredibly relaxing for muscle tension and stress.
You can find more articles by Vanessa on her blog.

I suffered from back ache for many years, and it became so bad that I went to see my doctor, who apart from organising an X-ray suggested that I enrol in a pilates class.  It is a shame that more men do not attend as my back ache has virtually disappeared and if I do some heavy work and it comes back it heals much quicker than before. Vanessa, apart from being a very jolly person, clearly knows what she is doing.

Male – Retired

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