Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Yes, it is as simple as that; and, at the same time somewhat complex.
There are many automatic functions of the body, including our heart beat, digestion and breathing. Several processes are happening in our bodies without our cognitive input. We don’t normally think about our heart beating, our food digesting or taking a breath. Respiration is the only function that happens involuntarily and can be easily manipulated in different ways.
Why is this important?
It's important because our body is constantly taking cues from the way in which we are breathing. Depending on how we breathe, different messages are sent to the rest of our body through our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Our breath rate, depth of breath and the muscles we are using to breathe, inform our bodies if we are safe, all is well or that there is a possible threat - get ready to fight or flee! It doesn’t matter if we actually are safe in the moment, if the body receives signals of danger from the way we are breathing, it responds to the perceived threat. This precipitates a domino effect within the body, which includes release of the stress hormone adrenaline, a quickened heart rate, dilation of the pupils, blood is sent to the arms and legs to get ready to run or fight, digestion of food stops, (the body thinks,‘We’ll digest later, after we are out of danger!’) production of sex hormones are halted... after all, we don’t need to procreate if we are fighting for our lives! These are just a few of the responses that are triggered when danger is perceived by the body. To further understand the stress response, read this article by Dr. Carrie Demers.
Knowledge = Power
The better we understand about how our physical bodies work, the better we can care for them. Understanding the anatomy of breath and our ANS is a great step toward empowerment.
The Respiratory Diaphragm
The Respiratory Diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle. It is a dome shaped muscles that sits at the base of the ribcage. As we inhale, the diaphragm is designed to contract down with suction as our lungs are filled with fresh air. As the diaphragm releases its contraction, the exhale happens. As the diaphragm moves, it stimulates and massages the organs beneath it in the abdomen, assisting those organs to do their work more efficiently. On top of the diaphragm sits the heart, which is also taking cues from the way we are breathing. This video will give you a visual of how the respiratory diaphragm works.
Dysfunctional breathing patterns are cultivated throughout our lives into adulthood. Sucking in our stomaches, bracing our core, grief, emotional/physical trauma... there are many reasons why the diaphragm gets ‘locked’, over time chest breathing or reverse breathing become our norm, we may not even realize we are breathing dysfunctionally.
The good news is, with practice we can restore functional breathing. There are specific breathwork practices we can do to bring beneficial rhythm back to our body. Since we are able to manipulate our breath, we can choose to breathe in a way that sends other messages to the body, engaging our rest and renew branch of our ANS. Messages that say we are safe, we can take care of our regular bodily maintenance, digest our food, sleep soundly, etc. This is called ‘bottom up’ therapy, because we are working through the body to cause change in the nervous system and ultimately, the mind. This can be done by practicing diaphragmatic breathing in as little as 5 minutes a day.
You might see a theme here, we are never talking about
just the breath, or
just the heart or
just the diaphragm.
Our physical systems were designed to work together and their functions designed to depend on each other. When one is not working optimally, others will suffer or not work optimally.
As a yoga therapist, establishing an individualized breathwork practice and ANS education is usually one of the first things a client and I work on together. Retraining the body to breath functionally is a golden key to open the door for deeper self-exploration, and in my experience, is the first step toward building resiliency for life.
This information is not designed to diagnose or treat and is intended for educational purposes only. For individualized breathwork instruction, please consult a Certified Yoga Therapist (C-IAYT)