I recently had abdominal surgery and with that the nurses give you a host of recommendations for post op recovery and health. One of those recommendations tweaked my yoga brain. They advised me to regularly take deep breaths and cough after surgery. I found out this advice is given to help prevent individuals from getting pneumonia, a common side effect after general anesthesia and abdominal surgery. (The concern being that the pain from the surgical area prevents people from taking deep breaths and this reduces air flow into the lower lungs, sometimes causing collapsed lung tissue, which is then susceptible to the buildup of bacteria, leading to pneumonia).
I always appreciate preventative health measures, and I think it’s great that this advice is given to the patients (and for the record, I did follow all the nurse’s recommendations). However, I have to admit, I did dismiss the nurse’s description of how to take in a deep breath, as I was thinking, “I’m a yoga teacher; I teach deep breathing for a living!” Afterwards, though, it got me thinking about how complex taking a deep breath really is when you’ve had some experience teaching and practicing it.
Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals struggle with taking in a deep breath, at least the way I interpret “deep.” Often, what I notice, is an increase air intake that lands in the upper portion of the chest/lungs, creating a vertical uplift in their posture, with very little to no expansion around the lower ribs and belly. This is how many people breathe—in the upper portion of the lungs only.
More than this, it appears some people have actually lost their ability to take in a breath into the lowest, most voluminous part of the lungs. I say “lost their ability,” because babies and animals naturally take these full, lower lung breaths. That’s how we were born to breathe. But somewhere along the way, often between the ages of 5 and 10, their breathing changes from a lower body breath to an upper body breath.
It can happen because of several things, here are couple… You go to school and you start sitting more, and sitting affects your posture, and posture affects where your breath can travel in the body. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps you start to “suck in our gut”, maybe because we become self conscious of our stomachs or just because we feel it’s something we should do to look better. Tightening your stomachs is also associated with a bracing stance, preparing for action and safety during times of vulnerability and stress, and you do this as a response to perceived physical and/or emotional threat. Over time, this action of perpetually tightening your stomach can become unconscious and habitual. If this is the case, and for many of you it is, being advised take a “deep breath” won’t be enough. If you want to access the largest part of your lungs, it may actually require training in how to break this habit.
Breathing down into the lower portion of the lungs is best exercised through a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. (Sometimes known as abdominal or belly breathing). One of the things that helped me truly access this type of breathing was to come back to my anatomy knowledge and create a visual in my mind of the body’s main breathing muscle—the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in the diaphragm contracts (flattens out), pressing down towards the abdominal organs, and when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome shape inside the rib (thoracic) cavity. To visualize this a little further have a look at this quick video demonstrating the action of the diaphragm in breathing. Diaphragm movement video
In some ways the movement of the diaphragm seems counterintuitive because we often associate contraction with a rounding or bulging, but in the case of the diaphragm, it contracts into a flatter shape, and when it relaxes it rebounds back up into its dome shape. With this unique action, as the diaphragm contracts and flattens out, it essentially frees up space within the thoracic cavity. This gives the lower portion of the lungs more room to fill and it creates a vacuum from which air draws inwards easier.
Coming back to our “sucking in our guts” phenomenon, it makes sense that if you have a tight belly, then the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera (guts) drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. So a relaxed abdomen is essential in taking a natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breath. (Below you will find a free handout with step by step instructions on learning to breathe this way).
There is more to this diaphragmatic breathing than just better lung volume. When we breathe with good diaphragmatic movement, the up and down action of the diaphragm stimulates blood vessels and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. One in particular is the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the relaxation portion of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is stimulated, the body produces chemical messengers and signals blood pressure receptors to promote resting, digestion, and relaxation. Studies are showing there is a feedback loop in the body that with long diaphragmatic breaths, the greater the movement of the diaphragm, which in turn increases stimulation of the PNS. In this way, simple diaphragmatic breathing is an effective tool in helping to calm and ease stress, improve digestion, and immune functioning. However, the opposite is also true. When a person is stuck in the habit of shallow, upper chest breathing, with minimal diaphragmatic movement, the body perceives this as being in a state of emergency or threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight.) This results in a cascade of events such as elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, impaired digestion and impaired immune functioning. A simple change in your breathing is a gateway to better physiological and emotional health.
So if you are ever given the advice to “take a deep breath,” know that it is not just trying to get more air into your lungs. Adding diaphragmatic movement to your breathing can have all sorts of health benefits. It just takes a little practice.