Breath – we all do it, but are you doing optimally? The breath is governed by a very special muscle known as the respiratory diaphragm, which is the only muscle of the body that is controlled by both the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. This means that you can control it consciously but it will continue to function subconsciously.
This always reminds me of a joke – a blonde is wearing headphones while getting her hair cut. The stylist does her best job to work around them, but finally can’t continue. She asks the blonde to remove her headphones, after which, the blonde turns blue and passes out. Confused, the stylist picks up the headphones to hear what she was listening to: “Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.”
Thankfully, your diaphragm moves up and down within the barrel of your rib cage without you having to dedicate any brain waves to it. In fact, our ability to breathe well is intricately linked to our ability to soothe ourselves and relax. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing is akin to “hacking” your nervous system. It is the closest you can get to flipping the switch from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) in a matter of moments.
This is not new technology by any means as the yogis have been doing this for centuries with a practice called pranayama. The practice of pranayama encompasses many different breathing techniques, from holding the breath for specific periods of time, alternate nostril breathing, focusing on inhales/exhales, passive inhales/exhales, to forced inhales/exhales. Basically, if you’re breathing, you could consider it pranayama.
How do you know if you’re breathing diaphragmatically (into your belly)? Pay attention to the way your body breathes just before you slip off into dreamland. This is when you tend to be most relaxed and will breathe into your belly without thinking about it. Another way to learn how diaphragmatic breathing feels is to use something heavy, a yoga sandbag or even book will do, over your belly and attempt to move the item as you breathe. The item doesn’t move because you are bearing down and poofing out your belly, but because the movement of the diaphragm is pressing your abdominal contents outwards as it plunges down into the belly. If you don’t have any props, you can simply place a hand over your belly to get some sensory feedback of the movement of the abdomen.
Your ability to breathe is your ability to calm your nervous system. A nervous system that is perpetually in a state of “fight or flight” does not take time to repair, recover or regenerate. Do yourself a favor and let your frazzled nerves BREATHE.
*I challenge you to focus on your breath for 5 minutes every day this week. Make yourself comfortable, whether that is a seated position or laying down, and focus on ballooning the belly, followed by the ribs, followed by an exhale. No worries if you fall asleep – that means you’re relaxed! (and probably a bit sleep deprived). Take note of how you feel on day 1 versus day 7.
Try this super simple pose to help breathe better and fall asleep! See the video below