Do you remember how you breathed when you were a child?
Was it an easy flow of breath in and out of your body?
Babies and young children innately know how to breathe well. But somehow, as we grow up, many of us lose this easy relationship to our body and our breath. We start to hold our body tight, especially around the belly, neck and shoulders.
The belly is one of the most common places to hold stress and tension in the body. Add to this the emphasis that modern western society places on being thin and we have a recipe for tight, restricted bellies and as a consequence, tight and shallow breathing patterns.
It is so important for the belly to be the mobile breathing core at the center of our body. We have the whole digestive tract here that needs to be nourished by free flow of blood and oxygen to work optimally. The peristalsis of the smooth muscles of the GIT work better without tension.
Women’s reproductive organs sit low in the bowl of the pelvis. With tightness in the belly there is also constriction to these precious organs. Tightness and constriction is the beginning of pain and malfunctioning here too. With tension, they cannot get the nourishment and space they need to function well.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that about 90% of the people that I see have forgotten how to breathe well. Many are not even aware that their breathing has become shallow and tight. It now feels normal for them.
This is a problem not only for the digestion and reproductive organs as mentioned above but shallow breathing exacerbates fatigue, anxiety and perpetuates the stress response. All of which are major disruptions to a Woman’s health and her life.
Without getting too technical on you all…did you know that there are more receptors for the sympathetic nervous system in the upper regions of the lungs than in the lower lungs?
When we shallow breathe we continue to stay in the stress response – the sympathetic nervous system’s, fight, flight and freeze response. When we breathe deep and low into the lungs we activate the vagus nerve which is one of the most important parts of the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest response that has a calming effect on the body and mind.
75% of all parasympathetic nerve fibers are in the vagus nerve. Vagus is Latin for wandering. Indeed this large nerve, or complex of nerve fibers, runs from the brain stem to many different organs of the body including all parts of our digestive system, tongue, lungs, heart, liver, spleen and sends feedback back to the brain.
Normally, both the sympathetic and parasympathetic part of the nervous system are autonomic…meaning they work outside of our conscious control. However…and this is BIG…when we take an easy, deep and relaxed breath, hold it for just a second, then slowly exhale, the vagus nerve is stimulated bringing peace to body and mind.
Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response. These include deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi. (1) Deep and rhythmic breathing is one of the best ways to calm your whole nervous system and enhance your digestion and peace of mind.
But, to do this well your belly must be soft and relaxed.
I have seen many time how hard it is for people to re-learn how to breathe in a relaxed way when sitting up in a chair in my practice, or on the floor in a yoga class. When sitting up we are holding ourselves up against gravity. There is some effort involved.
To create ease and re connect with your breath here is what I teach…
Lie down, on your bed or the floor with your knees bent at an easy angle and your feet on the floor/bed. Make sure your head is comfortable on a cushion or pillow with a gentle tilt of the chin to the chest rather than lifting to the ceiling ie. the back of the neck is long.
Rest you hands on your belly with your elbows easily bent and resting down. Some like to prop their elbows up a little with a towel or cushion underneath. Sometimes I recommend sitting a book onto the abdomen to bring a little weight there and help one’s attention to move there.
Close your eyes and soften your eyes, jaw and tongue.
Behind your closes eyelids gently turn the gaze of your eye just below horizon level; a gentle downward tilt of your eye to quieten the mind.Breathe quietly and normally for a minute to begin to connect with your breath.
The begin to breath into your belly, allowing the breath to swell the abdomen naturally outward with each inhalation and feel it naturally (without muscular effort) soften back towards the spine with each exhalation.
Allow a gentle pause at the end of your in-breath, a tiny moment of stillness.
Begin to lengthen your exhalation creating a long, slow, smooth out-breath. Perhaps you inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 6-8 counts. Allow a gentle pause at the end of the out-breath. Allow yourself to feel the stillness of momentarily doing nothing.
Continue breathing smoothly and imagine that you are breathing in and out of your belly, your navel. Let your belly move without effort with the breath. Let your belly be your mobile breathing center. Continue to create a gentle pause in between each breath and let your mind drop into this space of stillness.
Continue this gentle focused and rhythmic breathing for 2-10 mins.
Finish by returning to your normal breath for a few breaths.
Notice how you feel!
Easy and rhythmic breathing is the gateway to yourself.
The little space, the little pause in between your breaths is the doorway to
being rather than doing.
I hope that this breathing exercise brings you great peace and wellness. It is easy to do, but if you have a habit of chest breathing it may take a week or two of regular practice to rewire your breathing pathways and allow the muscles of your belly to let go.
I recommend tuning in and doing this breathing before even getting out of bed in the morning. Start your day by connecting to yourself and your breath!
(2) Image from ‘Better with Age: The Ultimate Guide to Brain Training’ by Phyllis Strupp