Breathe Smarter, Not Harder

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In a recent Fundamentals Immersion Course, I asked the participants to share one aha! moment from the weekend – something they learned about themselves, or about Somatic Movement that was profound for them.

One participant said that “playing with his breath” unlocked his movement. He realized that he had been working too hard to “inhale, and exhale, and inhale, and exhale” as if doing movement drills. At a certain point in the weekend I guided the participants “go with their own breath cycle” and take two breath cycles (a full inhale, gentle exhale, then inhale and exhale gently again) to move into arch and release to neutral. We did the same with the back lift – and the movements felt freer and easier – more pleasant and natural. He was amazed.

Sensory Motor Amnesia and chronic stress can literally take our breath away and we find ourselves “reverse breathing:” sucking our bellies inward as we inhale rather than letting our bellies soften to allow the air to be drawn into the lungs. Breathing itself is a pandiculation – a gentle contraction and release of the diaphragm – so there’s no need to be overly rigid about your breathing. Sometimes we need to experiment with our breath in order to get the most sensation and control out of a movement!

Pandiculate your breathing

Try this: Lie on one side (for the Side Bend). Make sure your head is supported by a pillow or rolled up towel. Take the hand of the underside arm and place it, as feedback, on your topside ribs. Place your topside arm over your head for the “arm sweep variation” of the Side Bend. Inhale, and as you exhale fully, squeeze all the air out of your topside ribs and move into your “accordion,” tightening the waist muscles to allow the head and foot to float up naturally.  As you release, take two full breath cycles to release back to the floor, inhaling gently into your own hand so you can feel what’s opening and releasing through the side of your body. Can you sense more when you take more time to breathe? Repeat that again.

Then, come up into your side bend, hand still on your waist – and stop! Inhale deeply into the underside ribcage. Take your time and allow your ribs to spread open like little mouths sucking in the air. Exhale, and then continue with two breaths to lengthen and release.

Do this on both sides.

How can you play with your breath to get the most out of your practice? Try it and see.

3 Ways to Improve Your Breathing and Health

It's that time of year when people are beginning to develop winter colds. Others are thinking ahead to preparing their taxes (only 2 months to go in the US). Both colds and psychological stress can cause you to breathe shallowly. Learning to breathe deeply - a skill many people lose over time due to an habituation to stress, not only helps those who are fighting off a cold, but those dealing with chronic conditions (asthma, sinusitis, anxiety) that tend to inhibit the ability to breathe deeply and fully. Improved breathing helps reduce anxiety, promotes oxygenation of the entire body, produces endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), enhances muscle function, helps to lower blood pressure, promotes creativity and mental focus, and increases metabolism.

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, you're breathing shallowly. Shallow breathing adversely affects your entire body – the brain, heart, and functioning of your internal organs. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease as well.

I'm always amazed at how, when I'm stressed or mentally hijacked by a negative thought or scenario, a long, deep breath and relaxing my jaw changes everything. It highlights for me how deeply primal it is to "hunker down" when we allow emotional or mental stress (What if it doesn't work out? What will I do then?) to take over.

Try this for improved breathing

  1. Let your abdominal muscles relax. Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Put your hand on your lower belly and gently inhale. Notice where your breath goes automatically without trying to change anything. Then repeat this several times as you allow the abdominal muscles to relax and soften as you inhale rather than sucking them in. Notice how the belly rises and falls. Allow the back to relax.  Repeat this 8-10 times.
  2. Bring attention to your ribs. The little muscles between them, called the intercostal muscles, act like the fabric in a bellows. If the fabric is tight, the bellows won't expand to suck the air in. The same goes for the ribs. Lie on your side, as in the photo on the right. Put your hand on your ribs and breathe deeply into your ribs 6-8 times. Let them expand like a bellows. Then lie on your back and notice the difference in sensation between both sides of your ribs.
  3. The Flower
  4. Consider your reflexive response to worry and fear. This reflex, called the Red Light Reflex (or Startle Reflex), is involuntary and instantaneous. In the photo on the right, you will see fans cringing in response to the baseball bat that is flying toward them. The Red Light Reflex causes you to tighten the belly, hunch the shoulders and withdraw inward out of real or perceived fear. It can save you from harm (as in the photo), yet, if habituated, it can inhibit breathing, lymphatic flow and drainage, neck pain and result in stooped, collapsed posture.

Over time many people lose the natural function of relaxed breathing. The first place to start on the road to fuller, deeper breathing is by learning to relax the muscles of the center of the body.

 

 

Reverse the Muscular Pain Caused By Computer Work

Back when I was creating my Pain-Free series of instructional DVDs, I spent an enormous amount of time preparing, collapsed over my laptop editing articles, approving designs, writing the script for the DVDs. My daily Somatics practice went by the wayside as I plowed ahead with work, only paying attention to my looming deadline (yes, even Somatic Educators can fall into the trap of stress-induced unawareness). One morning 2 weeks ago, however, I woke up and was convinced that I had some kind of virus, or stomach problem.  I'd had trouble sleeping for several nights, and when I awoke, my jaw was painful, the right side of my abdominals were rock hard, it was difficult to take a deep breath and my right hip joint was painful. Sounds scary, huh?

Computers can pull you in to hours of mental and muscular tension. Take a look in the mirror and you'll probably see what looks like an old man (or woman) slumped and drawn inward, head forward and chest collapsed.

Well, I'm no different from anyone who walks through my office door wondering "how did I get this way?" when telling me about their aches and pains. One doesn't get this way without losing sensory awareness of what they're doing to create the problem.  Muscles tighten because our brain - the control center of our muscles - teaches them to get stuck. I'm not immune to being sucked into the laptop for hours on end, completely absorbed in an important task. I'm definitely not immune to getting wound up over important projects, which creates mental and muscular tension. Research has shown that there's not one thought that goes through our brains that's not responded to muscularly in the body.

Using Somatic Exercises to unfreeze those tense muscles is like hitting refresh on your computer.

I lay down on the floor and went slowly through a half hour of somatic movements focused on the large muscles of the core that had become so tight and tense that deep breathing was restricted. I moved through subtle, slow movements to relax my back, waist, ribcage, and hips.  Afterwards my breathing was deeper, my hip pain had subsided, and my jaw was relaxed. Then I lay still, and noticed the difference between my muscles before I lay down, and after I'd finished my Somatics routine. I let my brain soak up the sensations in my muscles.

What had I learned? That sitting like the photo of me on the right - neck craned forward, chest collapsed down, ribcage pulled down by tight abdominal muscles (which restricts full breathing) -  is what millions of people do every single day around the world.  They sit hunched and slouched forward, absorbed in their daily work. As they do that they're oblivious to the messages their brain is sending their muscles - one of contracting to keep their muscles ready to do it all over again the next day.

This kind of posture - the Startle Reflex or Red Light Reflex - can cause shoulder, neck, and back pain, in addition to anxiety (shallow breathing doesn't allow oxygen to get to the brain). Relax the tight core muscles that pull you inward, and you can stand up straight, breathe deeply, and sleep soundly.

My Somatics colleague, Noreen Owens, author of the Somatics book Where Comfort Hides, emailed me during this hectic work period and reminded me that "when you're writing you need to do even more somatic movements every day because your stress level is higher." How right she was. This is a lesson I'm not soon to forget.

Come join a Somatics class or workshop and learn to regain somatic awareness and control of yourself, your reflexive and habitual responses to your stress, and how your daily movement habits contribute to how you feel. It's an easy, gentle, and safe alternative to many other treatment for muscle pain.

Pain Relief DVDs for the Whole Body

I have gotten some wonderful feedback from people about my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.  Here's what people are saying:

This DVD is great! So clear and concise!

  • I'm very pleased with the DVD... It's a class act all the way through. Even my wife was impressed with it on our initial passthrough viewing, and was inspired to get down on the floor several times when something looked especially intriguing.

I just watched your DVD and wanted to tell you how impressed I am with it. It's wonderful!

  • Excellent work on the DVD!  I've run through the complete program twice... and have incorporated the 10/15 minute variations prior to training along with playing around with some movements post-workout.  The DVD/audio has really helped with synchronizing breaths with movements.

I got the DVD... have been through the exercises a couple times.  I can feel a pretty significant difference in the looseness of my hips and back before and after the exercises.

My Pain-Free DVDs will be coming out in the Fall!

On June 20th and 21st I collaborated once again with Coastline Pictures on a series of instructional DVDs that will cover how to release muscle pain for more targeted areas:

The movements you will learn will help you to reverse conditions such as plantar fasciitis, hip joint pain, TMJ, sciatica, knee pain, piriformis syndrome and shallow breathing. You will also learn wonderful, safe "no-stretch stretches" for the hamstrings, calves and psoas muscles.  These DVDs will also be high quality and easy to follow - packed with new movements you can do anytime, anywhere for easy pain relief and improved awareness.You will continue to improve your posture, while educating your brain and muscles to improve balance, coordination and efficiency of your muscles and movement.  These will be a wonderful addition to your Somatics library!

I've received several emails from health professionals who wish to introduce Somatic Movements to their patients. These additional DVDs - just like the first one -  have been created with the understanding that anyone can learn Somatics. The concepts, methods and movements of Hanna Somatic Education are communicated with enough clarity to enable anyone to learn how to reverse their own pain.

To purchase my "basics" DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement, visit the Essential Somatics® store.

Relieving the Pain of Scoliosis and Pregnancy

"Anne" called me, having heard that I teach people to rid themselves of chronic pain. "No one will touch me, and I'm wondering if you can help me." She explained that she was seven months pregnant with her second child, had scoliosis and was suffering from severe pain in her left hip, groin and ribs. When I asked her why no one would work with her, she said that everyone said they didn't know what was wrong, and it might be dangerous. Instinctively she knew that tight muscles were causing pain. She was correct.

One look at Anne told me that years of compensation due to accidents and injuries was at the root of her muscle pain. I knew that if I could teach her to feel her waist muscles  again and begin to move her hips, she'd feel much better. Anne's left side was much tighter than her right side, (as in the photo on the right) and her left hip was drawn upward. Her right ribs twisted back and downward, and her weight was pitched more onto her right foot.

She showed a typical Trauma Reflex: a muscular holding pattern that occurs in response to an accident or injury. This is also the pattern of holding that creates scoliosis: a trauma at an early age (she broke her leg and was in a cast for months at age 9) can cause you to have to compensate until the injury heals. This leaves the waist muscles tighter on one side than the other and causes the ribcage to twist in compensation. The muscles, which attach to the spine, then pull the spine out of alignment during the growth spurt that occurs during adolescence.

After three sessions of learning to relax the muscles on the left side of her body - the waist, shoulder and rib muscles - including the muscles of her legs -  she stood up, able to breathe deeply for the first time in months. Under her shirt, her back looked similar to the photo on the right. The hips were hiked up and the ribcage twisted.

The nagging pain in her groin was greatly diminished. Methodically contracting, releasing and relaxing muscles to make them longer than before was easy. Anne and I worked together over the course of two months, reprogramming her movement and muscle control.  She wanted to make sure that when the new baby arrived she could deal with lifting, holding, and nursing.

Anne is doing really well; her baby is now two years old, and the pain she arrived in my office with is gone. She continues to do her Somatic Exercises whenever she gets a chance.

Pain Relief and Improved Breathing

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!