To most people the act of breathing is considered to be a very basic task, it happens without us even having to think about it. However, because breathing is rarely thought about, it is often a pattern that becomes dysfunctional and needs to be corrected. Most of us understand that respiration is responsible for getting oxygen into every cell in our bodies. What we should also be aware of is that the quality of our breathing is also important for better posture, as well as maintaining a healthier body. Unfortunately, most people do not breathe in a way that gives them optimum functioning of their bodies. In a society where stress and bad posture is the norm, it is common to accumulate tension in the neck and upper back. This stress and tension make it very difficult to fully utilize the diaphragm muscle. As a result, there becomes a cycle of bad posture, more tension, and more complications with breathing. Over time this can become a hidden cause of a variety of problems in our muscular skeletal system, and in our overall health. This newsletter will discuss the many ways in which changing the way we breathe can have positive effects in many areas of our lives.
Before discussing how breathing properly can help us become healthier, let’s review the basic process involved. Near the bottom of the chest and rib cage, we have a parachute-shaped muscle called the diaphragm. This is the primary muscle that should be used when we take a breath in. When the diaphragm is engaged, it flattens and moves downward drawing air into the lungs. Not using this muscle correctly is extremely common and results in muscles in the neck and upper back to become excessively tight. This muscular imbalance is a common source of neck tension, pain, and even headaches. Causes of this are poor posture, ergonomics, incorrect body mechanics, and even stress.
Not as well known is that the diaphragm also has an important role in maintaining posture and providing stability for the spine. Core stability is a big buzzword these days, yet I never hear anyone give the diaphragm the attention that it deserves. The ‘core’ is defined as the area of the body between the diaphragm and the lower portion of the pelvis. It is our center of gravity and the foundation from which all body movements begin. The word stability implies the ability to maintain a strong posture in that area. Having good core stability means that the spine and pelvis have proper support and are well protected when moving or performing activities.
The importance of the diaphragm is that it is part of the core called the inner unit. The inner core is made up of the diaphragm along with five other muscles. Collectively these muscles are especially important in providing the deepest level of coordination and stability within the spine. Without proper functioning of this unit, the spine is left particularly vulnerable to injuries. Properly training the diaphragm helps to synchronize the rest of the core muscles to protect the back as well as reduce tension in the neck. For this reason, the diaphragm and proper respiration should be the first area of focus when attempting to rehabilitate the core.
Retraining the diaphragm and the inner core requires teaching the brain to form a stronger connection with these muscles. In a sense, it is reprograming the muscles in order to enhance coordination and control. This is extremely important, because it has been found that many spinal injuries happen as a result of a lack of coordination within this deep area of the core. The purpose of rehabilitating the diaphragm is to create better nervous system patterns within the inner core. This involves activities that focus on relaxation and becoming more in tune with the body. This is also called mind/body awareness, and is the first step toward successfully restoring core stability. With correct training and continued effort, a greater level of awareness of breathing properly is achieved. Ultimately, this helps to reduce the amount of wear and tear on the entire spine.
In addition to the mechanical importance of rehabilitating our breathing, there are also many other incredible benefits that this practice contributes to our overall health. In the practices of yoga, tai chi, and meditation, breathing is by far the most important of all movement patterns. They even have terms such as Prana, and chi, to describe the vital life force of the breath. According to these philosophies correcting breathing is essential to unite mind, body, and spirit. It is believed that with continued practice, comes optimal circulation of life force. This ultimately leads to an increased ability for the body to heal itself. Current research shows that this type of breathing allows us to become more relaxed and improves our ability to manage stress. It is also known that relaxation and stress reduction is extremely beneficial for improvement of the entire body, especially brain and immune system function. Other benefits include enhanced memory, improved capacity to tolerate negative emotions, and the ability to problem solve in creative and healthy ways. Ultimately, this task can be utilized as an added step in creating a better quality of life.