Breathing well is important both for our physical and mental wellbeing, both are intertwined, as I mentioned in my last blog. We cannot separate mind and body, there is always an interplay, we work as a whole.Saying that, I am going to try and focus more on the physical wellbeing side of breathing in this blog. Lets see how it goes! It’s useful to have an accurate idea of the mechanism of breathing within your body, we don’t need to get too technical, even seeing an animation of the movement of the body with the breath is helpful. Jessica Wolf an American Alexander Technique Teacher has produced a great animation called ‘The Art of Breathing’, here is a brief demo of the video.
As you can see from the video, the movement of the ribs and the diaphragm (the first large sheet on muscle you see added to the skeleton) are responsible for breath, they work with the appropriate tone of the abdominal muscles. The ribs provide part of the structure of attachment and support for the back and torso muscles. While breathing easy we can notice the lower ribs moving up and out to a greater extent than in the upper ribs. The ribs form joints with the vertebrae in the spine. Free movement of the ribs and spine allow movement essential to breathing. If there is excess tension and postural ‘distortion’ this can often lead to the ribs being fixed and rigid, this makes the diaphragm do too much work, and have a negative affect on our breathing.
Different Ways Breathing Affects our Physical Wellbeing.
1. Breathing ‘well’ improves our posture, with a body that is free and poised, the spine, ribs and muscles of the torso to move and work freely, including the diaphragm. Breathing in this way, our ‘posture’ is improved. If, on the other hand, we have scrunched up our shoulders, slouched and sagged in the middle of our spines or excessively hold in our tummy muscles, we will find in very difficult to breathe fully and with ease. Have a go see what you notice? As an embodied awareness tool I often use three questions to help us come back to the body and our surroundings. ‘Am I seeing, am I breathing and am I Balancing’ (I have mentioned this is previous blogs). Am I breathing (with ease)? is a great way of checking in or pausing to send our body some Alexander thoughts or directions making ease and poise more possible. Note, even excessive tension in the legs can have a knock on effect on our breathing, again experiment, see what you notice if you brace your legs in standing? The hands on work of Alexander Technique teachers is really valuable as it allows us to be more aware of tension patterns on our body and whether we are free to move and breathe.
2. Aerobic fitness and exercise, for example; walking, jogging and swimming; use the large muscle groups of the body to move at a steady, rhythmic pace. Aerobic exercise uses both our heart and lungs, improves endurance and helps our bodies use oxygen more efficiently and in time can improve your breathing. However, knowing how easy full breath works, can aid the process. For example, if we have a habit of shallow breathing through the upper chest and shoulders and try and improve aerobic fitness we may find we get breathless very easily. If, on the other hand, we think of the lower ribs having the largest movement within the rib cage and understand the movement of the diaphragm, it can aid fuller breath which will make aerobic exercise easier.
3. Breathing well aids digestion, ok, this benefit is really difficult to separate from the mind, its best understood psychophysically. The ‘flight, fright, freeze’ response to danger or stress interferes with digestion (amongst other things). It takes blood away from the guts to the large muscles of the body, so we are ready for action. It also restricts our natural breathing patterns and tightens the muscles of our torso. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and ready for action. This is a good thing when in dangerous situations, our mind/body is looking after us. However, if we are dealing with a lot of stress over time, we can be stuck in this ‘activated’ state, which can have an effect on our digestive system. We can learn to reverse the effects of stress by consciously focusing on our breathing. If we take time to regularly focus more on our out breath, extending it, so that it’s longer than the in-breath, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxing side of the nervous system helps us rest and digest! In Alexander Technique we teach a breathing exercise called The Whispered ‘Ah’ which aids this process. This, along with practicing constructive rest, can have a beneficial effects on our digestion.
These are of course not the only ways breathing affects physical wellbeing, just three that I wish to share in this blog. To learn more about how the Alexander Technique can help you please contact me via the buttons at the top of the page.