Learning to Take a Deep Breath

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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.
diaphragm-breathing-500x313The 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.

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing Handout

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.

There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.

When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning.  A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.

I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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How Do You Move?

110203-154“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.” -Osho

When I read this quote I thought about yoga, and the beauty I see when I watch a confident, expressive student move from one pose to another. Her body language seems to speak, “I am open, I am free, I radiate love and confidence.” Picture it: tall posture, open arms, open chest, and fluid, easeful movements – these are the postures of someone moving with joy and love.

Now imagine what it looks like to move from a place of fear. I picture staccato, hesitant, restricted, and closed movements. When you are afraid or doubt yourself, movement appears small or and sometimes even frozen.

It’s not just in our movements, when we move through life from a place of fear, we live carefully and avoid risks. We are afraid to fail so we don’t take the risk for the new job and stay put somewhere that makes us unhappy. We are afraid we won’t be good at something, so we never try that one sport or activity we have a curiosity about. So we stay complacent, comfortable, and never push ourselves to try new things. Essentially, we live our lives small.

What if we practiced moving from a place of love and joy, using the safety of our yoga mat to explore bigger more expressive movements? The next time you do yoga, try opening a little more and softening into your pose a little deeper into your poses. Don’t self limit – explore your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone. Imagine yourself emanating love for yourself and deep gratitude for the body you have. Don’t worry about how you look, just give it a try and notice how it makes you feel.

My guess is it that if you try this, even though it may make you feel a little awkward at first, you’ll get a sense of freedom, space and uplifting energy by pushing yourself to do this…And perhaps you’ll have a little awakening of realization that you can bring more love and joy to your movement.

Then consider, how could you move this way off the mat?

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Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue

151110-007-2Many people have not heard of Adrenal Fatigue, but understanding this condition is important because some experts suggest that 80% of the Western world will be affected by it at some point in their lives.

The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and are responsible for secreting more than 50 different hormones that are essential for life. Among these are adrenaline, cortisol, progesterone and testosterone. Because they regulate so many important hormones, their proper function is critical for many functions essential to life such as producing energy, balancing electrolytes and storing fat.

These glands also help you deal with stress. When you are under stress, the adrenal glands engage many different responses in your body to make it easier for you to handle that stress.

But during periods of intense, prolonged stress or chronic illness, the adrenal glands begin functioning below the level needed to maintain health and well-being in the body. They still function but at less than optimal levels. The result is adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:

  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Craving salty or sweet snacks
  • Morning fatigue
  • Mid-afternoon sleepiness
  • Increased energy in the late afternoon
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Mild Depression
  • Weight gain, especially around the waist
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low body temperature

Treatment: Treatment for adrenal fatigue should take a multi-faceted approach with whole-body wellness in mind.

Stress: One of the first things you should do is reduce the stress in your life. This may mean clearing your schedule, reworking some relationships or learning time management skills. In order for your adrenal glands to heal, the demands placed on them should be lightened.

Sleep: Sufficient sleep is also important. The main repair work on your adrenal glands takes place between 10 pm and 1 am. If you are prone to late nights, consider training your body to go to bed earlier. It is also a good idea to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet in order to help you sleep more soundly.

Exercise: Adrenal fatigue can also be helped by exercise. Exercise regulates cortisol, relieves depression and increases blood flow. Each of these benefits will contribute to your recovery. Try to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day. Yoga is especially helpful in this manner since it teaches breathing and relaxation techniques as well as the physical exercise.

Nutrition: Finally, by decreasing ‘junk’ food as much as possible and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can improve your nutrient intake. Sometimes adding supplements to your diet can speed healing of adrenal fatigue, check with your doctor, naturopath, or dietician for advice on this matter.

Emotional Hygiene: We seem to be good at recognizing our physical ailments and seeking treatment, but we tend to ignore or minimize our mental health ailments. However, it is just as important to take care of your emotional health as it is your physical health. Improve your emotional hygiene by truthfully acknowledging your emotional status and, when necessary, seek the support your need.

Remember the first step to any change is awareness. If you think you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, consider these lifestyle tips as part of your self-care plan in conjunction with working with your health professionals.

*For some helpful information on using yoga to reset the body’s nervous system and decrease stress hormones click here.

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Yoga Flow Video for the Upper Body

Here is a short flow sequence I use to warm-up the upper body at beginning of classes. It gently stretches the upper back, shoulders, neck and chest. It also helps to draw energy and circulation into these area, and brings focus into the body and breath.

If you find yourself sitting at a computer for long periods, this sequence is great as a tension reliever for the upper body during your workday. Simply sit at the edge of a stable chair, and move through the sequence 5 to 8 cycles.

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Diving Board

A few months ago I read this:

divingboardshelsilverstein-1024x845You’ve been up on that diving board. Making sure that it’s nice and straight. You’ve made sure that it’s not too slick. You’ve made sure it can stand the weight. You’ve made sure that the spring is tight. You’ve made sure that the cloth won’t slip. You’ve made sure that it bounces right, And that your toes can get a grip—And you’ve been up there since half past five. Doin’ everything… but DIVE.              – Shel Silverstein

After reading this I thought, this poem pretty much sums up how I feel about my yoga career, at least, at this moment in time. For years I have been planning, training, preparing, teaching, waiting, saving, and constructing… such that when I finally got nearer to officially opening my own yoga studio, it seemed to me, well…there is only one last thing to do.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever done a big career change, or perhaps something else like move to a new country, quit work and travel, leave a relationship, etc.? Big life changes like these have a way of making you feel vulnerable as you leave the familiar, the safe, and the secure, and sometimes it takes a lot of nerve and planning to finally getting to the point to overcome our fears and obstacles to take the big leap.

For me, it was a slow and steady climb towards my goal. There was no running and jumping – I had bills to pay and kids to raise, so I chose a part-time path. This required more time and patience than I imagined, but I kept at it, and for this I give myself a pat on the back. Ultimately, this journey has brought me to this point, at the peak of my total career change, and now I can finally say, my studio is open for business.

So if you are facing a big change in your life and you’re wondering should I or shouldn’t I? Just remember it doesn’t matter how you do it or how long it takes, it only matters that you don’t stand still. I can honestly say, being at this pivotal point, it does make me feel nervous, but I know in my heart, no matter what is to happen in the time to come, it’s true that it would have been worse to not have tried at all.

We must walk consciously only part of the way toward our goal, and then leap into the dark of our success. -Henry David Thoreau

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What Does the Evidence Say?

What does the evidence say?

With nearly 22 million North Americans practicing yoga, there’s a lot of buzz these days about what the benefits, and harms, are of yoga. You will hear and read anything from yoga cures migraines, menstrual cramps, tight hips, insomnia, rid the body of toxins, backache, anxiety to my personal favourites – yoga to flatten the abs and tighten the booty… Needless to say, one can get a little wary and mockingly ask, “What can’t yoga do?”

As much as I love yoga and do believe it provides us with many health benefits, I still appreciate everything has it’s limits, and let’s face it, yoga is a business – so a little scepticism goes a long way. Yoga is also very difficult to define due to its ever-evolving westernization of techniques and myriad of styles, making it tricky to qualify in research. However, plenty of studies have been done, and many more are underway. I recently came across this article,“I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. And here’s what I learned” by Julia Belluz’s, which nicely summarizes what the evidence for us. Here’s what it said:

What we know:

  • Yoga is probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise, but it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain
  • Yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body, which can actually help stave off disease.
  • Yoga enhances “body awareness,” or people’s sense of what’s going on inside themselves
  • There is evidence showing that yoga helps with stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, although, the studies thus far are limited in design and inconclusive in what aspect of yoga is actually helping

What we don’t know:

  • Whether some forms of yoga are better than others
  • Whether yoga should be prescribed to people for various health conditions
  • How yoga compares with other forms of exercise for a good many specific health outcomes
  • Whether yoga is safe in the long term. The cumulative research so far shows yoga is as safe as any other exercise, but much is still to be learned about long term safety when considering different styles and specific poses.
  • There is no good evidence yet behind many of the supposed health benefits of yoga, like flushing out toxins and stimulating digestion

My take on all this:

I always feel great in my body and mind after a good yoga class, and that’s what keeps me practicing. I’m sure the millions of other yogi’s would agree, and for this reason, I think yoga is here to stay. But with its increasing presence in mainstream society, more questions will be asked and the natural progression is for more research to be done, helping us better understand more about the what aspects of yoga are giving us the benefits, and possibly harms. This will indefinitely lead to refinement of techniques and styles and tighter regulations of credentials. Personally, I’m excited about the next chapter of yoga; no doubt there’s much to discover.

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Work Stress?… Take 5 Minutes to Relax and Restore

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Can’t keep up? Getting sucked under? How does one fit 24 hours of work to fit into an 8 hour workday?

Many of my coworkers and friends have been expressing how the demands of their workday are so voluminous, there is no longer a feeling of completion at the end of their day. As we run out of time to “complete” our tasks and projects, things are left hanging, and as they carry over into the next day, the pile gets higher…and no one likes this feeling.

I’ve discussed in a previous blog, Overloaded and Overwhelmed, how high stress, sustained over a long period of time, can negatively affect our physical health. We need strategies and healthy habits to be resilient; we want to break through this “pile” and come through thriving on the other side. For most of us, this requires a break or a step back from the work pile in some way. Even short breaks can give us a sense of renewed energy, a shift in perspective, and better mental clarity.

Today, there is plenty of research indicating a regular mediation practice can be an effective strategy in creating this emotional/physical balance and resiliency in a complex and busy world. There are many types and various lengths of meditations to try. If you want to give it a try, but are unsure where to start, below you will find a very simple and quick (5 minute) relaxation meditation that is great to relax and restore – perfect for a workday refresher.

I hope you’ll find a few moments to plug in and take a listen. Sometimes even 5 minutes can help you be more relaxed and productive in your day.

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