Three Ways to Improve Mindful Breathing For a Healthy Core
There is so much talk about breathing even though breathing is automatic. Right now you are breathing and not even thinking about it. Breathing comes automatically from lower, primitive centers in the brain stem. However, mindful breathing requires use of the cortical brain or higher brain center and is not automatic, but requires conscious thought and practice. Stress causes you to hold your breath and rely on automatic breathing, but it comes at a cost. You cannot control the stress of modern life, but you can control how you breathe and how much exercise you get. Shallow breathing is harmful to your health for many reasons:
1. Shallow breathing contributes to illness and disease. Every cell in our body needs oxygen. Cancer thrives and can set up camp in an environment where there is no oxygen. This is a very big reason to have a daily practice of mindful breathing and to get some aerobic exercise. Without oxygen, muscles do not perform optimally and neither does our brain.
2. Shallow breathing contributes to chronic pain. Muscles need oxygen but they also need the nervous system to modulate tension. Being in sympathetic overdrive, or" flight or fight" deprives the muscles from oxygen and water, creating a natural response of clenching. A study by Haugstad et al showed that shallow breathing patterns contributed to stiff and tight hip flexors. This is because the diaphragm is attached to the ilopsoas muscle with fascia (remember "the hip bone's connected to the...". Shallow breathing can make the neck, hips, pelvis and low back pain tight.
3. Shallow breathing contributes to pelvic floor muscle tension. The pelvic floor moves in direct relationship to the diaphragm. If the diaphragm is tight and not going through its full excursion, neither is the pelvic floor. Tension in the pelvic floor can create dysfunction with symptoms of pain, muscle spasms, trouble eliminating urine or stool, inability to have penetration, urinary urgency, frequency and leaking. Pelvic floor dysfunction is a reason many patients seek expert help at our clinic. Breath control is the foundation of all core exercises. The pelvic floor muscles relax on the inhale and contract on the exhale (see above diagram). Pain and dysfunction can disrupt this pattern of breathing and needs to be retrained.
So how do you change your breathing habits and improve your health?
1. Daily practice of diaphragm breathing through quiet time, meditation, Pilates, yoga or exercise. Take a yoga or Pilates class, meditate on scripture, get outside in nature or listen to music. By regularly practicing deep breaths, it will be more natural when you become stressed or anxious, instead of holding your breath and sighing. Think INhale = INflate and breathe from your belly rather than your neck and chest.
2. Daily aerobic exercise. Walking, running, biking, dancing, playing sports, being intimate with your spouse are a few examples. You don't have to work out for an hour; even 10 minutes a day can be helpful. The key is getting your heart rate up so your diaphragm moves through its full range of motion. This will also decrease the stress response of "fight or flight" and instead promote "rest and digest."
3. Forced exhalation. By blowing out air every time you lift groceries, garbage and yourself out of a chair, you increase the excursion or movement of the diaphragm. The bigger the exhale, the bigger the inhale as the lungs recoil in response to the stretch of the diaphragm. This increases the activation of your inner core, including the pelvic floor. Think "blow as you go" or "EXhale with EXertion" to improve this automatic muscle response.
These are simple changes that can result in a big improvement in your overall health. If you are struggling to breathe from the diaphragm or have pain or dysfunction, seek the help of a women's health physical therapist who can identify and mobilize structures that are preventing the diaphragm from moving appropriately. This can include adhesions from surgery or old injuries. Healthy Core physical therapists have special training and are experts in pelvic floor and core dysfunction. You deserve to be in optimal health and be the "best version of yourself." We think you are worth it!
Haugstad and Haugstad (2006). Posture, movement patterns, and body awareness in women with chronic pelvic pain. Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
Kotarinos and Fitzgerald (2003). Rehabilitation of the short pelvic floor I: background and patient evaluation. International Urogynecology Journal: (14) 261-268.
Hodges P (2003): Core stability exercise in chronic low back pain. Orthopedic Clinics of North America. 2003: 245-254.