Breathing, that automatic reflex we tend to think very little about as we go about our day. And yet, at a time like this, breathing is actually something we should be focusing on in a more conscious way. Anxiety is at an all-time high for many of us – no matter what our situation, there is a degree of tension for everyone. And as simplistic as it may sound, a method of controlled breathing can help to alleviate anxious thoughts and feelings, while increasing alertness and helping to boost your immune system.
In my training as a Pilates professional, one of the basic principles we start off with in STOTT Pilates, is breathing. The principle promotes a three-dimensional breath pattern in all directions, into the anterior, posterior and lateral portions of the rib cage. Many of us tend to adopt a shallow breathing technique in the chest, when really it needs to be much deeper. Chest breathing, or shallow breathing means that we take a minimal breath into the lungs, usually by drawing air up into the chest using the intercostal muscles, rather than deep into the lungs, breathing into the belly, using the diaphragm to its full capacity. There is a misconception that inhalation is just into the front of the rib cage, when actually you should be breathing deeply into the back of the rib cage too.
Adopting a shallow breath pattern can lead to a pattern of rapid breathing, which can create a sense of panic, because it is more difficult to get that full breath and your sympathetic (fight or flight) response is therefore activated, making it more difficult to calm the nervous system. By controlling your breathing, you send a signal to your brain to say, “hey actually everything is OK”, which then stimulates your parasympathetic response (rest and digest) to chill you out a little.
- You can practice this seated and have someone place their hands on the back of your rib cage, or lying on a mat. This provides proprioception and awareness of the movement of your rib cage as you inhale and exhale, either into the hands or into the mat.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly to help you gain awareness of the depth of your breathing, and how it feels to fully expand your breath into the front, back and sides of your lungs.
- You will then be able to differentiate between a full, deep breath and one that is much shallower.
- Inhale through the nose and exhale through pursed lips, to create a sense of exertion, of force as you dispel the air, to make it a more active breath.
- You can then take this style of breathing into your exercises, your meditation practices and your daily breathing technique.
Let’s take meditation for example; the whole premise of meditation is breathing, and disconnecting from daily stressors and distractions, helping us to slow down and find a state of calm(er). Breathe in, breathe out, notice your breath, and use it in this practice to exhale negative notions, anxiety-ridden thoughts, or simply take you away from your endless To-Do list for that day. Maybe you have young children, and you’ve suddenly been awarded this new responsibility of educating your kids online, and you find yourself attending a hundred Zoom classes per day to make sure that they stay up to date with their schooling. Between that and making sure we have enough food in the house, we disinfect everything on a regular basis, we try to keep our finances in check, and of course check for news updates every second of the day, well, it all gets a bit much. So, we need to look at ways to disconnect and relax throughout the day.
Having started teaching virtual Pilates classes after all the gyms closed last month, I decided to dedicate one of those classes to breathing techniques and stability work, simply because it gives us 45 minutes to connect with our bodies, with how we are feeling, and to use a more conscious breath pattern to promote better movement and stronger stability. It’s all about activating very specific muscles and targeting the entirety of the lung capacity to reach all the small airways, by breathing actively and deeply. Yoga is another great way to practice breathing techniques, another neuro-muscular series of movements as you connect mind to body. And if neither of those suit you, then simple breathing techniques (call them meditation or not), will help. I like to start my day with a 10-minute meditation practice, which simply involves breathing as I count to ten consecutively, with zero outside distraction, phone is definitely switched off, and I let my mind do the work, or actually, stop doing the work for those ten minutes.