I recently read an article about how slow yoga-like breathing has been shown to reduce pain. It shows children learning the techniques taught in yoga: slow, aware "belly breaths" that help to create a balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight response to stress) and parasympathetic nervous systems. This makes a ton of sense to me. I'm only a beginner in yoga, but I thoroughly enjoy the start of each class, in which we sit quietly and focus our awareness solely on our breath, or Prana. It's a moment of quiet, stillness and slowing down. Have you ever observed a baby breathing? As they inhale, the belly swells with each inhalation. A baby who breaths from the upper chest is one in distress. Most babies, thankfully, haven't yet learned to not relax. They haven't yet been told to hold in their stomach so they don't have a pot belly, or so they "support the back." They just do what comes naturally.
Ideally here's what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, and the belly doesn't swell, it means that you're breathing shallowly. This in turn, affects your entire physiology - the brain, the heart, and the workings of your internal organs. This can adversely affects mood, energy, and all metabolic processes.
I have a lot of clients who have simply forgotten how to breathe properly. The real problem lies in their lack of awareness that they're not breathing as fully as they could or should. They come to me with back, neck, or shoulder pain and are unaware of the fact that their overly contracted abdominal muscles - often the result of their Red Light Reflex posture - is the source of their pain. Their abdominal muscles are so tight they are incapable of voluntarily relaxing them. It's as if they're waiting for the other shoe to drop, always on alert. This Red Light Reflex causes one to tighten the belly, contract the shoulders, and collapse inward. It occurs in response to bad news, fear or anxiety and is a primal response that can save you from danger. You just don't want to get stuck in it!
When habituated, this posture leads to shallow breathing, which has been linked to higher rates of heart disease. Learning to gain control of the abdominal muscles, lengthen and relax "the core" of the body goes a long way toward relaxed, free and easy breathing and improved overall health.
Remember the phrase "the breath of life," and whenever you are able, remember to stop and inhale. Enjoy it.
To learn Somatic Movements that can help improve breathing, relax painful back muscles and increase flexibility, check out my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD!