Nearly all of us nowadays chronically forget to breathe. Constantly barraged with stress from family, relationships and work, we fail to do our most basic biological function…breathe.
We forget, yet we all know how important breath is for our cardiovascular, digestive, neurological and mental health. What follows are some of my favorite tips for loosening the breath as well as some breathing exercises if you find yourself unable to sleep or going about your daily activities.
Releasing the breath:
Laying down on your back, place four fingers of one hand underneath your rib cage on the same side near your sternum. You’ll gently lift your rib cage, then take your fingers of the opposite hand and lightly slide the skin away from your ribs. Then, walk the fingers under the rib cage a little bit further down and pull with the other hand again. You’ll do this all the way down until you hit the side of your body. Take a few breaths after releasing the first side and feel how much easier it is to breathe on that side. If you stand in front of a mirror, you will actually see your rib cage expand more on that side of your body versus the side you have yet to release. Essentially you are loosening the surface connective tissues around your rib cage and diaphragm.
Another great way to make it easier to breathe while you are seated is to be sure that your hips are slightly higher than your knees. Nearly all chairs and car seats automatically place our bodies in a position where our hips are lower than our knees. This creates a tilt in our pelvis and makes it harder for us to breathe. If you can at least adjust the height setting on your chair and/or put a towel or pillow in the chair to lift your hips, you will find that breath flows more easily.
Remembering to breathe:
Sometimes it just helps to have a picture, object, song or poem to remind us to breathe. A friend once gifted me a beautiful, rose quartz stone that I used to keep in my line of sight when I worked a desk job. That serene color and reminder of the outdoors often reminded me to take a moment to check in with my breath. A calming picture as wallpaper on your computer or phone as well as a favorite song (my favorite here) or saying to remind you to smile and breathe can all be helpful cues.
This is my favorite technique to give my clients because it can be done anywhere and it is my go-to when I cannot sleep.
Take an inhale and an exhale and notice the quality of each. Is the inhale longer than the exhale? Is it difficult to take a breath in? Do you feel like you have to yawn or sigh to exhale? Begin to count how long it takes you to do each and try to make them equal in duration. You may find that at first observance you have a 3 count inhale and exhale. With each next breath, attempt to add on one count. There is no ultimate goal or number of breaths to take, but notice how your heartbeat inevitably slows as you extend each inhalation and exhalation.
Full body breath
Take and inhale–notice how far the breath travels down your body. Does your chest move? Do your shoulders rise? Does your belly inflate with air? To encourage the breath to fill my whole torso, I think of my body as an empty vessel and the breath filling each crevice starting with my throat, then ribs, back, belly, hips, thighs…all the way down to my feet. When I exhale, I go back up toe to head and visualize the exhale coming from the feet. During this exhale, I will also contract my tummy muscles and relax my jaw to expel the air.
Before learning Pilates, I had never heard of the concept of lateral or intercostal breathing. I never realized that we had muscles in between our ribs (intercostals) and never thought about how the ribs span the back as well. Obvious, I know, but just not something I ever considered when consciously breathing. It took me a while to loosen the tension in my mid back and shoulders so that I could expand my ribs and breath there. Laying face down over a fitness or exercise ball, release your weight into the ball and think about absorbing the ball when exhaling and then inhaling into your back. It’s a wonderful breath opener during and at the end of a workday, and it helps to relieve back and shoulder tension.
There are many books and videos out to help us rediscover and remind us to breathe. My favorite is The Breathing Book by Donna Farhi. Not only is it a fantastic pre-bed or weekend read, it also makes a wonderful gift for a loved one. Remember…you’re alive!
Shannon Rashap, CPT, M.A. Ed.
Helping you find effort with ease…