Every yoga teacher ever incorporates breath work into their instruction, and with good reason. Our modern, generally sedentary lifestyle encourages slouched postures and keep us chronically stressed, both of which can lead to shallow breath patterns. Deep, slow breathing gives us tons of benefits. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm — the domed muscle at the base of the ribcage that’s meant to be the primary respiratory muscle — works to its full range. Coordinating with the pelvic floor, the diaphragm pushes the organs down on inhalation and up on exhalation, toning them. A secondary function of the diaphragm is postural; as it contracts, it increases inter-abdominal pressure which helps stabilize the spine and engage the abdominal muscles. But perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the diaphragm is how it has the power to calm and de-stress us.
When we breathe deeply and the diaphragm works fully, it stimulates the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to most of the organs, including the heart, lungs and digestive tract. The vagus nerve is primarily in charge of unconscious functions, like heartbeat, breath, digestion, and salivation. and when activated, this nerve reduces our “fight or flight” response, AKA the state that we can get stuck in when we’re chronically stressed out. And when we’re chronically stressed out, we breathe quickly and shallowly, which reinforces the “flight or fight” state, which, in turn, makes it harder to deal with stressful events in our life, which — you guessed it — results in quick, shallow breathing. It’s a negative feedback loop that increases the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our systems. Yikes!
Luckily, it’s relatively simple to break this cycle by breathing deeply and stimulating the vagus nerve. Try sitting upright, with one hand on your upper rib cage just beneath the clavicles and the other on your lower ribs. Inhale slowly and deeply, feeling your belly push out and the lower ribs both push forward and apart. The upper hand should not move at all. Then slowly exhale until the abdominals contract slightly to squeeze the rest of air out.
There! With one breath, you’ve activated the vagus nerve and begun calming your body. Of course, just one deep breath won’t produce sustained results, so here are three exercises that will help strengthen the diaphragm and promote deep, calming breath.
1. Under Pressure: Lie on your back and place a five-pound bag of rice (or sand or dried beans) across your lower ribs and belly. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing the movement of your lower ribs and belly to raise the bag. Hold your breath for a count, then slowly exhale completely, allowing your abdominals to engage at the bottom of your exhale.
Repeat 15 times and then follow with 10 slow, deep breaths without the bag of rice. You should notice a difference in how deeply you can inhale.
2. Fun With Balloons: Take a new balloon that hasn’t been blown up. Inhale fully and slowly and blow the balloon up, using as few breaths as possible. Blow the balloon up fully five times.
3. Timed Breath: Sit upright, with your ears aligned with your shoulders and your shoulders aligned with your pelvis. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Place one hand on your upper rib cage and the other over your lower rib cage. Inhale for seven seconds (if seven seconds is too long, try three- or five-second inhalations until you can sustain a longer breath), keeping your upper hand and ribs quiet and feeling the movement in your lower ribs and belly. Hold your breath for three seconds, then fully exhale for seven seconds, allowing your abdominals to engage to squeeze the rest of the air out. Repeat 10 times.
Develop a routine each morning or evening where you take 10-15 deep, slow breaths. Repeating this practice will help your body learn to naturally breathe more deeply, and will help establish a more consistent state of calm.
How do you feel after taking a few slow, deep breaths? Let us know @BritandCo!
(Photo via Getty)