Twinkling lights, pumpkin spice, and festive parties, oh my! Even if you delight in this time of year, it can still be stressful. Yoga is here to help. Did you know that the most efficient way to affect change in your nervous system is through breathing? Simple, right? Well…. Not exactly.
HOW WE BREATHE MATTERS
There are two basic ways our bodies are built to breathe: diaphragmatic respiration (primary respiration) or thoracic/chest respiration (secondary respiration). The respiratory diaphragm is a sheath of muscle and fibrous tissue, attached to the spine, bottom rib cage and the bottom of the sternum, and has only three holes in it – one for the esophagus, one for the aorta, and one for the vena cava (the vein which carries blood from the lower body up to the heart and lungs to get oxygenated). Other than those three openings, the diaphragm completely separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities. At rest, the diaphragm is positioned in a dome shape, with the concave side facing downward. The primary mechanism for inhalation is the contraction of the diaphragm. It moves down and widens to draw the air into the lungs. Then, during the exhalation, the respiratory diaphragm relaxes and returns upward into its resting state, expelling air from the lungs. Sometimes diaphragmatic breath is called “belly breath”, because when we’re in a position where we don’t need the abdominal wall engaged, the belly may subtly round as the diaphragm descends downward.
With thoracic respiration, muscles on the front and sides of the neck (the scalenes, and the sternocleidomastoids), the pectoralis minor, and others, contract to lift and widen the ribcage, creating space for the lungs to inflate. The diaphragm moves a little, just not as much as in diaphragmatic breath. This seemingly subtle difference makes a huge impact on the nervous system.
When we breathe with the diaphragm, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and this promotes a sense of relaxation. When we breathe by lifting the chest, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, which energizes the body and mind.
SYMPATHETIC AND PARASYMPATHETIC – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are often referred to as the gas pedal and the brake pedal of the autonomic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body is prepared to take-action … to mobilize in some way. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, everything slows down (except digestion).
The book Buddha’s Brain, by Rick Hansen and Richard Mendius, explains the ideal balance of this gas and brake pedal activity:
“Happiness, love and wisdom aren’t furthered by shutting down the sympathetic nervous system, but rather by keeping the autonomic nervous system as a whole in an optimal state of balance:
- Mainly parasympathetic arousal for a baseline of ease and peacefulness.
- Mild sympathetic nervous system activation for enthusiasm, vitality, and wholesome passions.
- Occasional sympathetic nervous system spikes to deal with demanding situations, from a great opportunity at work, to a late-night call from a teenager who needs a ride home from a party gone bad.
This is your best-odds prescription for a long, productive, happy life. Of course, it takes practice.”
Truthfully, most of us are living our lives dominated by the sympathetic nervous system. Even when we’re practicing yoga asana (pushing too hard, moving too fast), or trying to rest, there is often restlessness, worry or anxiety. The tricky part of the relationship between breathing and the nervous system is that stress generally facilitates chest breathing over the diaphragmatic counterpart, which, in turn, can breed additional stress. It’s a vicious cycle.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
When I began my private yoga therapy practice, I had no idea that 99% of the people that would come to see me would need some support in breathing. Many of us haven’t been taught how to breathe optimally, and because of the high level of stress and anxiety in our society (and because of skinny jeans, sitting a lot, slumped posture, obsession with flat bellies, tension in the abdominals, and habit) there’s a tendency for many of us to lift the chest to breathe, rather than properly use the diaphragm. This is why breathing is always the foundation of my personal practice as well as my teaching. You can have perfect alignment in your yoga asana practice, but if you’re not breathing well, the benefits of the posture are greatly diminished.
POSES TO MOBILIZE THE DIAPHRAGM
As I mentioned, sometimes it feels difficult to breathe deeply when we’re stressed out. The respiratory diaphragm can get stuck in an inhalation position or an exhalation position, and it can become tense when other muscles tighten up, such as the psoas (that’s a whole other article). There are a few postures that liberate the diaphragm and elicit diaphragmatic breath with little or no effort on our part. Simply position your body into these shapes, and voila! Your diaphragm will move. Occasionally you may need the support of physical manipulation, like massage, but usually these postures will be sufficient to get your breathing and nervous system back on track. The following are a few of my favorites:
WALL DOG OR WALL DOLPHIN
GRAB YOUR SEAT
Sitting with your hands holding the seat or legs of your chair will stabilize your shoulders down, inhibiting thoracic respiration. This one is sneaky, because it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything. Remember this position at the dinner table!
These postures work well to promote diaphragmatic over thoracic breath because they prevent the lifting of the ribcage, either through the positioning of the arms overhead or through using the hands to hold the shoulders down.
THE STEPS FOR DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATH
- Exhale everything out and squeeze your low belly in and up towards your spine.
- Inhale to your upper lungs, then to your mid lungs so your rib cage expands to the sides, forward and back.
- Continue inhaling to the bottom tips of your lungs, so you feel your belly round, side waist expand and your low back broaden.
- Exhale and squeeze your low belly in and up towards your spine to fully exhale.
- Make your exhalations a couple counts longer than your inhalations for even more support in calming your nervous system.
CREATING LASTING CHANGE
Re-patterning the way that we breathe takes time. Because breathing is an autonomic function, the habits of breathing run deep. On your mat, and even more importantly off your mat, make a conscious effort to take deep diaphragmatic breaths. And in those moments in which you notice that you’re not breathing in this way, stop, drop and roll. Wait, that’s not right. Stop, change your body posture if needed, and create the space within your body to breathe deeply. Once you’ve set the stage for a calm nervous system, your entire experience will shift, whether you’re at a holiday party or stuck in rush hour. Remember, your body knows how to breath YOU, your nervous system knows how to relax, your mind knows how to quiet, and your heart knows how to be at peace. All of this is innate. These abilities are always available to you.
Happy Breathing and Happy Holidays!