“Take a deep breath.” It’s great advice. Breathing is the most fundamental function of human life. We can exist for days without food and water, but oxygen? Just minutes. The average person takes 16 breaths per minute. At 80 you’ll have breathed around 672,768,000 times.
So it’s weird that we are so very unskilled at it!
Life can make us feel like we are holding our breath. And many of us probably are. But here’s the truth; you were likely not breathing efficiently before you ever heard the word ‘pandemic.’ And you aren’t alone.
Picture an infant in a crib. Their breath flows effortlessly, belly rising as the breath comes in, contracting as it goes out. Shoulders and jaw are relaxed, their mouth is likely closed. They can roll over, sit up, crawl, even walk all while processing oxygen like a rockstar. So if it’s so easy even a baby can do it – why can’t WE???
In a healthy breath pattern, our diaphragm does the work for us. Abdominal muscles relax while our diaphragm contracts downward. Intercostal muscles expand the rib cage, lowering the air pressure in our lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest. Air flows inward in response to the vacuum.
Trauma, stress, even being told to suck in our tummies can change this physiology. Our shoulders lift, our spine curls. We draw in a fast, shallow breath to the top of our lungs because our brain thinks we need oxygen quickly. Once the threat is passed, diaphragmatic breathing should resume. But in our fast-paced, over-informed, hyper-connected world, the moments between perceived threats may not be enough. Shallow shoulder-lead breath can become a way of life.
For many, their breathing dysfunction started at school. School can mean sitting. The more room our lungs have to take in oxygen, the easier it is for them to do their job. Posture is key to this. Try to blow air into a balloon while you stand on it. Impossible! You may get some air in but you’ll never fill it. The same is true when we slump at a desk. Add a screen or keyboard into the mix and we exacerbate the issue. Our shoulders round forward, collapsing the chest and rib cage. Our abdominal muscles stretch and weaken. The intercostal muscles and diaphragm can’t contract effectively to create a good vacuum. With the abdomen compressed, our organs can’t get out of the way. We don’t take in nearly as much air as our lungs actually can hold. Since we don’t get enough oxygen per breath, we breathe more often, recruiting muscles in our shoulders and neck that were never meant to have anything to do with our breathing. Chronic back, neck, hip, and shoulder pain often ensue.
Are you ready for the good news? The super-secret weapon each of us has at our disposal – Breathing.
Let’s try it. Lie down on your back with your feet on the floor. Go ahead! I’ll wait.
- Place your hands on your abdomen (above your hip bones, below your ribs)
- Rest your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth.
- Inhale through your nose sending breath downward and feel your hands rise.
- Exhale, your hands return as your abdomen presses the air up and out.
- Feel your ribs expand as you inhale and knit together as you exhale.
- Notice your back expand against the floor as you inhale and draw in as you exhale.
- Repeat, notice your entire torso from hips to chest expand and contract in 360 degrees.
Whenever you notice your shoulders creeping into your ears, close your eyes and try this. Even seated in a chair, it will slow your breathing, calm your nervous system and increase oxygen flow throughout your body. Simply closing your eyes and allowing breath to fill you will shift you toward wellness. If you have questions about this exercise or how best to improve your own breathing, let me know. That’s what I am here for.
Erika Taylor is a community wellness instigator at Taylored Fitness, the original online wellness mentoring system. Taylored Fitness believes that everyone can discover small changes in order to make themselves and their communities more vibrant, and that it is only possible to do our best work in the world if we make a daily commitment to our health. Visit facebook.com/erika.taylor.303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.