In a past life not so long ago (see Leaving A 6-Figure Job To Follow The Path Of Yoga) I used to work with this amazingly sweet colleague based in London. For the purpose of this post, let’s call her Gill. Our job would put us on the phone for long hours, connecting with our employees and teammates from all over the world. Gill was often complaining of painful neck tension and sharp headaches that were greatly affecting her quality of life, and sometimes force her to leave work for days at a time. One day, as we were finishing one of our project management calls, I simply asked her “Gill, where do you breathe?”
Pain has its own noble joy, when it starts a strong consciousness of life, from a stagnant one.John Sterling
She was a bit confused by my question. “I really don’t know, I have never paid attention” she said.
– “Ok, place a hand on your belly. Now breathe. Is your hand moving?
– There you go, I think we may have found the problem. Now let’s fix it.”
The thing is, people who are under a lot of stress, and people who talk a lot, often develop breathing pattern referred to as “shallow breather” or “chest breather”. Stress keeps our nervous system in a sympathetic state, making our body react as if we are facing a danger and need to run away. As a result, the breath accelerate. Similarly, when people talk a lot, they need to quickly inhale air between their words. In both situations, the quick need for air uses only the upper part of the lungs.
What’s wrong with that you may ask? Well, a lot! First of all, these short breaths often lead to accumulation of carbon dioxide in the body, making the body acidic. The short and fast breaths do not leave enough time for effective gas exchange. The small amount of oxygen does not have time to get delivered to the bloodstream, and the carbon dioxyde accumulation starts lowering the pH of the body. An acidic environment is more prone to inflammation, infections, spreading of cancer, etc. The body, in trying to rebalance itself, uses the calcium ions of the bones to try to neutralize the acidity, potentially leading to osteoporosis. And the list continues…
But that’s not what was causing Gill’s headaches. Our breathing muscles are like all our other muscles: the more we use them, the stronger they become. And sometimes when we use them a lot, the other muscles become lazy. The principal muscles of the breath are the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles. They are helped by a number of accessory muscles that help pull and expand the rib cage in all directions. In the case of our shallow breathers, as they only use the upper part of the chest to breathe, they mostly use accessory muscles (scalenes, levator scapulae, etc.) to pull the rib cage upward. The main job of these muscles is to move the neck or the shoulder girdle, but instead, our shallow breathers engage the neck muscles and use them move the ribs. Every. Single. Breath.
This means that not only these muscles overwork, but in order for them to pull the heavy ribs rather than moving the head, other muscles of the neck need to stabilize the head. Over time, the neck muscles become tense and spastic. As they do, they tend to compress the nerves stemming from the cervical spine and innervating the head (C1 and C2) and the neck (C3 and C4). Result – as you may have guessed: headaches and neck pain…
In case you are not convinced yet, here’s more: chest breathing can lead to constipation. Yes, really! Our healthy natural breath pattern should be mostly through the belly. If you don’t believe me, watch how babies breathe – because they don’t have to deal with mortgage and traffic and deadlines, their breath is natural and unaffected by stress. They inhale sticking their big round belly out, just as we should! In belly breathing, the diaphragm contracts and flatten, pushing all of our abdominal organs forward and down. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the organs slide back up. Each breath, our whole digestive system glides and massages itself, helping the food move along our digestive track and promoting the good functioning of our digestive system – IF we use our diaphragm! With shallow breathers, over time the diaphragm is inhibited (i.e. it gets lazy and forgets how to work) and the gut remains stagnant.
So what happened to Gill you may wonder? After realizing that she was a shallow breather, she relearned how to breathe. I asked her to spend only a few minutes, three to five times each day, placing one hand on her abdomen and breathing into the belly. At the beginning, it required a lot of focus to activate her diaphragm, but with repetition it became easier and easier. Through this practice, her diaphragm woke up and got retrained to work. By consciously changing her breathing pattern, even for a few minutes each day, her natural breath started moving down from her upper chest to the abdomen. Over a short period of time, her neck tensions and headaches reduced.
Gill’s case is far from unique. In fact, most of my new students suffer from some a form or another of pain caused by lifestyle, habits, or bad posture. Working with yoga allows us to open our eyes to what we put our bodies through and find our way back to balance.
To learn more about practical applications of yoga for different conditions, join our 300h Advanced Yoga Teacher Training in Bali. Next retreat: January 21 to February 14, 2019.