Breathing, the essence of life. Oxygen fuels every fibre of our body, but are you getting enough oxygen to make your body as strong and as healthy as it can be?
A core element of our training as Sports & Remedial Massage Therapists is that deep, diaphragmatic breathing is essential in healing your body post injury. The chemical reactions required within the body when healing an injury need oxygen as a component but it is also used to remove the toxins created in the process. A lack of oxygen leads to a lack of good healing. But I wonder is there more to breathing than fuelling our body’s chemistry?
The Physical Side
Why is the activity of breathing any different from other activities we perform using our body, where if our ‘technique’ is poor it can cause dysfunction and imbalance? What’s more is we breathe every second of every day so the impact is vast. Let’s take inhalation for example. The Diaphragm is the primary muscle involved and responsible for approximately 45% of the air that enters the lungs in normal breathing, we then have the Intercostal muscles responsible for another 25%. Finally there are group of muscles that act as a support including the Scalenes, Sternocleidomastoid and Pectoralis Minor that when contracted help to lift the rib cage up and out for that final 30%.
Where I am going with this is that the most common breathing pattern I see in my clinic is the ‘Shoulder Breather’. They generally come to me with a neck complaint, screaming Scalenes, raucous Rhomboids, you know the m.o. and more often than not the client also presents with an anteriorly tilted pelvis. On examination it sometimes becomes clear that yes there are shortened, tight muscles that need to be released but in many cases a good long deep breath highlights that the Pectoralis Minor and Scalenes are the work-horses when it comes to breathing, while the Diaphragm is simply a passenger on the journey. Not only is this significantly reducing the amount of oxygen they intake with each breath but it is also causing them physical dysfunction and pain.
I find these clients are the ones who struggle to get relief; they have seen many therapists but always come back for more because the neck stiffness returns as the cause has not been addressed. Is their breathing pattern the cause? You can release the Scalenes all day long but if that client simply walks out your door and continues to breathe in the same way then there is no sustained relief. You change their breathing pattern and suddenly it’s a whole new world! Their Diaphragm kicks in on inhalation, their abdominals engage on exhalation and this change in pattern starts to pull their hips back into line. Your client has more energy, less pain and a stronger body that is starting to align itself against gravity.
The Emotional Side
Anxiety, Stress, Restlessness, some of the horrors of our day to day lives. Having suffered panic disorder in my younger years I can testify first hand to how important breathing is to not only physical but mental health. Try this, next time your heart is racing, from fear, panic or simple over exertion, slow your breathing right down, try to get to that 7, 8 second breath and feel your heart slow down with it. Breathing is an important part of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is linked with decreased stress hormones and improved heart function. Good breathing engages our parasympathetic nervous system which releases those yummy neuro-chemicals that relax you, elevate your mood and combat physical pain. Do you remember the last time you were stressed or anxious? Were you holding your breath? Were you holding tension in your shoulders? Breathing can be the catalyst needed to break the cycle of physical and emotional pain.
All of this makes me wonder…… I often call our generation – ‘The Anxious Generation’ as the levels of stress and anxiety seem to be on an upward scale rocketing off the chart. Why is it that we are so much more anxious than our ancestors given that we seem to have so much more? More and more our lives revolve around sitting down – work, television, computer games, we sit more than we stand. Sitting flexes our hips, inhibits our abdominals, our diaphragms and we are back to our ‘Shoulder Breather’ pattern, we are getting less oxygen and become more stressed. Could it be something as simple as breathing properly could change things? Well what is to stop you trying – go on, saturate your cells with delicious oxygen, practice deep diaphragmatic inhalations and follow strong and controlled abdominal exhale. Why don’t you aim for 10 breaths a minute and see what it does for you?