This is the first in a series of guest posts by Helen Laird of Yoga in One Syllable. Helen is passionate about helping people see where yoga already exists in their lives and inspiring them to bring more yoga into it.
Have you ever had one of those niggling aches in your lower back? Perhaps you’d like to firm up your post-baby belly. Making sure you’re breathing properly may be the answer.
It was a sore back that led me to my first yoga class, hoping that a few stretches would help iron out it. But instead of leading me through a series of postures, the teacher spent time teaching me how to breathe.
I was far from convinced that breathing would help cure the back pain. Boy was I wrong. Not only did my pain disappear, I discovered what it felt like to be relaxed. I’ve since become a passionate convert to the benefits of good breathing.
At rest, correct yogic breathing is what can be termed nose-belly breathing. Air should go up the nostrils and flow all the way down to fill up the bottom of the lungs. Your belly should begin to swell before any expansion occurs in the chest.
Watch a newborn asleep and you’ll see that this is exactly how we were born to breathe. As adults we’ve had many years to tamper with our instincts – usually with less than desirable results.
Proper nose-belly breathing activates our diaphragm, which helps to massage our internal organs, in turn improving our digestion. The constant movement of the diaphragm nourishes and strengthens our spinal muscles, while simultaneously improving the muscle tone of our pelvic floor. It ensures that we maintain correct blood-oxygen levels and brain function. In other words we stay calm and happy.
Yogic breathing also works the muscles that wrap from the center of our back round to our stomach. Getting these active is the key to slowly but surely reducing the waistline.
During the final few weeks of pregnancy your normal breathing pattern is put on hold. As your baby grows bigger you’re forced to breathe from the upper chest – and you probably feel grateful to suck in the air you can.
It’s clearly possible to survive on this kind of breathing, but it’s far from optimal for our bodies. For a start, chest breathing is energy intensive. It increases the oxygen saturation levels of the blood, which in turn increases blood pressure, suppresses the immune system and reduces our threshold for pain.
Our body is also pre-programed to become stressed when we rely on our chest to breathe for us. Over time chest breathing dulls our thinking. It leads to a sense of lethargy and disturbed sleep. On the physical level, our posture suffers as those abdominal and back muscles lose strength. The result? Lower back pain.
After childbirth, returning to a natural nose-belly breathing pattern is one of the most beneficial practices you can bring into your life. It requires no equipment other than the lungs you were born with, and you can practice it anywhere, any time.
To check in on how you’re breathing right at this moment, place your right hand on your abdomen just above your belly button, then place your left hand on your chest near your heart. Now breathe in normally.
Did your right hand move before your left hand? If so, congratulations – you are an instinctive nose-belly breather. If your chest hand rose before your stomach hand, not to worry. With the next breath, slowly, consciously try to bring that air right to the deepest part of your lungs.
You may need to sit or stand up a little taller to make space for the movement of the diaphragm. Sometimes the easiest way to try this is by lying down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
With a bit of practice, breathing correctly can become an instinctive habit, bringing with it a stronger body and calmer mind. After all, it’s no more complicated than relearning something we were born to do.