Are you taking a breath? Or catching your breath?

There’s a difference. Taking a breath involves consciously taking in air, filling your lungs using your diaphragm, the flat dome shaped muscle between your chest cavity and stomach cavity. This is also known as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. Catching your breath, on the other hand, mostly happens when we’re stressed, pushing our limits with adrenaline rushes and suddenly we involuntarily gasp for air using muscles in the chest and neck. These muscles are not primarily designed for breathing yet when we live unconsciously in stress mode, we recruit them to help take in a shallow dose of oxygen to keep us going. The result: tight and shortened neck muscles pulling our heads forward,  tight and shortened chest muscles pulling our shoulders forward, both leading to pain, weakness, headaches, limited mobility in the upper body and of course walking around like we regressed to caveman days.. yes, I mean poor posture! (And not very attractive.) I see this often in practice.

I’m a stickler for posture. This goes back to my childhood days as a dance student, remembering my Russian ballet teacher cracking the proverbial whip whenever any of us stooped over from laziness or took our attention off our form. Traumatic? Not really. It conditioned me to place emphasis on my own posture as I grew up, which partly led me towards chiropractic. Fast forward to today, and form and function have a deeper meaning to me than just being able to walk tall, proud and elegantly.  So, does good posture contribute to the anti-aging effect? I believe so. I know people my age (and younger) who look considerably older and much of it has to do with their slouch!

Individuals with poor posture tend to catch their breath more often.

Individuals with good posture tend to catch their breath less often.

Would both types of individuals benefit from proper breathing practices?  Absolutely! 

So, take some breaths daily. Set a time of day for a set of belly breathing exercises.  Make this part of your regular routine just like you brush your teeth. Why? Here’s a few reasons:

  1. Lowers anxiety. Very effective for anxiety disorders such as social phobia and panic attacks.
  2. Improves clarity and brain function. Brain health primarily thrives on oxygenation.
  3. Exercises your abdominal muscles. (Let this not be your only abdominal exercise though!)
  4. When done before bedtime, improves sleep quality and duration.
  5. Relief from headaches and migraines (I can testify to this from past experience with headaches.)
  6. Stimulates creativity thinking. (My personal experience along with meditation)
  7. Improves mood regulation. Have you been cranky lately? Try breathing!
  8. Improves lung capacity. Fantastic therapy for asthmatics and those suffering from COPD.
  9. Improves stress adaptation. (Practice belly breathing and see how you handle your next job interview, for example.)
  10. And of course, relaxed, shoulders and neck muscles and with chiropractic adjustments-improved posture!

So, lie on your back, place a pillow under your knees. Place one hand on your chest, the other on your belly and draw in air allowing ONLY your belly to expand. If you feel your chest rise you’re not belly breathing. Take a 3 second inhalation through the nose, hold for 2-3 seconds then do a slower exhalation through the mouth (at least 4 seconds).  It takes practice and patience, just like any other therapy.

Morning Yoga Class Meditation in Savasana
Morning Yoga Class
Meditation in Savasana

This strategy works wonders for me: Before bed every night, I lay on the floor with a hot pack under my back and feet elevated (resting on the foot of my bed). I do at least 10 cycles of belly breathing in this position. Elevating my feet prevents varicose veins and relieves pressure off my legs after long days on my feet working or sitting at the computer.

Oh, and another fantastic breathing exercise I swear by is “Pranayama”. It’s an ancient practice within Ayurveda dating back over 5,000 years and is more than a breathing exercise. I’ll post that one separately so watch out for the next article soon!


Dr. Melanie

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