I’ve been fascinated by breathing mechanics for years now. Ever since my first exposure to anatomy and physiology at undergraduate level, I have pondered the implications that movement patterns, posture and flexibility of our spines and rib cage on our health in general.
The most obvious purpose of breathing is this: absorbing enough oxygen in to satisfy the demands of our living tissues and expelling carbon dioxide.
The lungs are elastic structures that rely on the rib cage to expand in order to get air in. The diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for this, which is a dome-shaped muscle that forms the floor of the chest cavity and flattens as it contracts, pulling the rib cage down.
Many of us who are unable to move well through our thoracic spine or rib cage and have chest and neck tension have a difficult time of breathing. The most common trait shows as short, high breaths with visible involvement of our neck muscles. Pause for a moment and think about how you’re breathing. Are you completely relaxed? What part of the body do you breathe into mostly?
Our breath can give quite a good picture about our broader health such as fitness and movement habits, posture, stress levels and most importantly our awareness of our own bodies. Thankfully there are some relatively quick fixes related to reducing muscle tension though the chest and thoracic spine, which allows the body to automatically follow along this new path of least resistance.
The effect it can have on the state of deep relaxation for instance, is profound and almost immediate as is the case in meditation.
Similarly when used to sink into a deep stretch, it signals to the body that it’s ok to push further into unknown ranges of motion. Other health benefits include reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood, improved immune system function and physical energy.
There are many types of breathing practises that pop up in eastern and western medicine – the popular Pranayama style is one that springs to mind.
A couple of weeks ago I participated in a 60-minute guided breathwork session to further explore the impact that breath can have on my own awareness. This was an entry point to move beyond the physical elements of breath and access deeper patterns of emotion and behaviour. Despite the physical challenges that I encountered, my experience was both helpful and puzzling. Helpful in the sense that I identified restrictions that I had not previously noticed physically, but it also raised more questions than it answered.
I believe that breath work is a quick and practical way to link the physical with the spiritual worlds within all of us; a link that is difficult to keep when we factor in the demands of a modern world.
I’ll be investigating this further in the coming months, so stay tuned for a follow-up post!