It’s no secret that most of us experience stress from time to time whacking out our nervous system. And because the nervous system regulates breath, it means we don’t always breathe optimally.
You might be thinking, “Thanks, but I breathe fine” and you’re correct in that breathing 101 is taking enough air in to not pass out as you move through life. #winning
However, what a lot of us don’t realize is that our breath is a largely untapped resource that can significantly improve how we move and feel. And, it’s free, so why not use it?
Here are 3 strategies for using breath to decrease pain and enhance movement.
1) Reduce tension
Breath is facilitated from a big dome shaped muscle attached to your ribs and spine called the diaphragm + some small muscles around the upper ribs and neck.
However, poor posture and stress can cause us to underuse our diaphragms and overuse our necks. Additionally, many of us who are self-conscious about our stomachs will “suck in” rather than allowing that area to expand outward.
If you consider where these breathing muscles are located, its no surprise that this contributes to discomfort in the neck and low back.
One simple way to ease this tension? Breathing mindfully while letting the belly expand.
You can do this in a number of positions – sitting comfortably, on hands and knees or lying on your back on a mat or roller. Once you’ve found your position of choice, you can make your breath more intentional, allowing the abs to expand with each inhale and gently contract with each exhale.
To increase relaxation, you can also play with inhaling through the noise and exhaling softly through the mouth.
2) Increase core control
When you breathe, your diaphragm coordinates with your pelvic floor and deep core muscles to facilitate core engagement and spinal stabilization, meaning that when you breathe well, you get a better core connection.
It also makes your abs look flatter, because it’s you deep core than stops your abs from “pooching out.”
You can use your breath to increase abdominal engagement to support your spine in harder exercises. We sometimes do this in Pilates with a technique called lateral breathing.
Lateral breathing is when you breathe into the sides and back of the ribs while keeping the abdominals drawn in. While this wouldn’t be functional for daily life, this technique stabilizes the low back during challenging exercises like the hundred where the legs are long and unsupported.
If you tend to collapse into your low back during extension, you can also use your exhale to increase core support and better control during extension exercises like backbends.
3) Improve spinal mobility
You can also use breath to encourage spinal movement. You might not have noticed this, but inhaling brings us into more extension, where exhaling sends us into a subtle flexion.
So, you could also use your inhale to find greater spinal extension in an up dog or swan or your exhale to find greater flexion in the cat part of cat cow, where the back rounds.
Additionally, you can use your inhale to encourage movement in stiff areas of the spine and ribs during side bending and twisting (e.g. breathing into the long side of the body in a side bend or using an exhale to twist further).
Ultimately there’s a lot of breathing theories out there and my opinion is it’s good to know what’s functional, but it’s also good to play! And so you can experience these concepts, this week’s video is a Pilates/bodyweight workout focusing on different breath techniques.
And if you ever get confused, just remember there’s ultimately two ways to breath. In and out 😉
Pilates breathing workout
Pregnant cat (quadraped belly breathing)
Seated side bend
Single leg stretch
Bridging with arms reaching overhead
Single leg kick