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Breathing is simple, yet extraordinary. Two big bellowing lungs sit in front of the spine, encased in a mobile ribcage. As oxygen passes into our lungs it creates a cascade of events, which causes a groundswell of invisible energy to pass through the whole body. We then use the second part of our breathing cycle to expel carbon dioxide into the air, breathing out what we don’t need.
Breathing creates a wave of motion that surges throughout the body. Every tissue sways to the rhythm of our breath. Tense buttocks, tight backs, weak abdominals, tense shoulders and stress can affect our flow of oxygen.
Correct breathing can have a very positive influence on the motion of the whole body and can help reduce back (and neck) pain. All the ribs are joined to the spine and some of them also connect to the breastbone at the front. They rise and fall, and also widen and narrow, to accommodate the motion of the lungs.
The main breathing muscle is of course the diaphragm, which attaches to the lower back, behaves like a parachute rising up and down to the tempo of the breath.
There are lots of other muscles and joints that help us to breathe — too many for me to mention. Just know that they create space when air is drawn inwards and to help push air outwards. and most of these muscles have direct links to our spine.
With all this in mind, we can begin to imagine the effect that each breath we take has on the motion of our backs.
The big question is how do we know if we are breathing ‘normally’ or not?
There is no perfect way to breathe because we change our breath according to what we are doing, but some of us tend to overuse our chest and shoulders, often because of stress.
We don’t often think about our breathing pattern because the body generally gets on and does it for us. This is because there are two means of control. One is automatic, which is why we can still breathe when we are asleep. The other is voluntary, which we can control, like slowing our breath during yoga.
Using our voluntary control, we can improve the way we breathe – it can be adjusted, just by thinking about it.
Stay seated and place one hand on your stomach (hand A) and the other on your chest (hand B).
Breathe as you normally would without changing your breathing rate whatsoever. Just sense what your hands are doing. After a couple of minutes decide which type of breather you are — A or B.
A: hand A is moving more in relation to B
B: hand B is moving more in relation to A
If you are more of an A breather, this is good. As oxygen is trying to enter your lungs, you are giving the diaphragm and all the other breathing muscles room to breathe (excuse the pun) which means the joints in your spine are also being mobilised.
If you are a B breather, you probaly suck in your stomach muscles and puff out your chest each time you take a breath. You are in fact restricting the natural movement of your diaphragm and subsequetly your back and pelvis. Your shoulders and neck will probaly tense up to accommodate backflow.
When we allow the lower ribs, back and abdomen to expand outwards when we breathe in and simultaneously the upper chest to slightly rise upwards. In this way, we aren’t restraining the flow of oxygen and the whole spine receives a continuous massage in the process.
To encourage a better rhythm to your breathing, there are a few things you can think about.
(1) Close your eyes and think about the flow of air. Try to imagine an unrestricted path that starts in the nostrils and finishes in the tips of your toes.
(2) Use your hands A and B as your guides.
(3) As air passes inwards, try to provide space by relaxing your stomach and your buttock muscles.
(4) Like pouring water into a jug, allow air flow to begin where your stomach (B) hand is.
To get better at it, practise. Our bodies don’t respond to change through using too much force or will. So, just by supporting the natural way to breathe, you will find that your breathing will instinctively adjust, without you having to try too hard.
You can use any ‘empty time’ in your life to practise, like sitting in traffic, watching TV or taking a rest from computer work.
Finally, remember better breathing leads to better backs and ultimately to better health. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will become to feel the breath.
Any questions, just ask.