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The act of breathing is unique in many ways: it’s involuntary and voluntary; it’s conscious and unconscious. While our bodies are always doing their jobs—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—amidst the chaos of stressful, busy schedules, we can often lose awareness of our breath. In turn, we’re not doing our bodies (or minds) any favours. I sat down with physiotherapist and marathon runner, Diane Rizzardo, to pick her brain on how we can become better breathers.
TM: It’s been a while since science class in high school, so could you remind us…why is deep breathing important?
DR: On a simple physiological level, when you inhale fresh oxygen you feed the tissues (muscles, heart, brain) through red blood cells. When you exhale, you rid the body of carbon dioxide.
TM: What about the about the correlation between stress and breathing?
DR: Yes they are very connected. Chronic shallow breathing (aka apical breathing) causes tension in the neck and shoulders. Your breathing rate and depth can actually change with your emotions. Think about what happens to your heart rate and breathing depth when you are scared, nervous, mad or anxious. I bet if you saw yourself in a moment of frustration or anxiety, your shoulders would be up near your ears and you would be taking quick, shallow breaths as your heart rate quickened.
Day-to-day small stressors (waking up late, traffic, forgetting your keys…) force your body to elicit the fight or flight response, which places stress on the body. This stress can build up over time and lead to a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure, anxiety or depression.
The good news is deep breathing can be a great coping mechanism to decrease stress. Dr. Benson, a Cardiologist from Harvard, found that using deep breathing, yoga and meditation can result in a relaxation response.
TM: So why don’t we naturally inhale deeply more often?
DR: A major reason is engrained societal triggers: it’s encouraged for men and women to have a flat stomach, which means not allowing the belly muscles to ever relax and expand fully.
TM: Ahem, not too mention our skinny jeans don’t allow for much room…
DR: Laughs. Exactly! So whether it’s stress, being constantly on the go, or societal pressures affecting our subconscious, breathing correctly doesn’t always come naturally. We can start to improve this by creating an awareness, and incorporating breathing exercises into our morning, work, and night time routines.
Here are 3 simple breathing exercises taught by the pro, Diane Rizzardo:
1. Pilates expansive breathing (lateral costal breathing)
Once you get the hang of this technique while lying on the ground, try it seated, in the car at a stop light, or sitting at work. Set an alarm at work to remind yourself to check in with your posture and breathing once every hour.
Setup: Lying on your back with your knees bent.
- Low back in neutral, tip your pelvis to find a position where your back muscles soften
- Check in with your rib cage—are your lower ribs connected with the floor under you? If not, think about bringing your breastbone down to let the back of your lower ribs connect with the ground below you
Step 1: Inhale—think about ribs expanding wide. Exhale.
Step 2: Inhale—think about back of ribs connecting to the floor. Exhale.
Step 3: Inhale—think about diaphragm moving towards feet. Exhale.
Step 4: Inhale—think about breathing into the full ribcage (like a balloon filling up equally), shoulders staying relaxed away from ears. Exhale.
Repeat steps 1-4.
2. Balloon breathing (Theraband breathing)
Setup: in the same position as lateral costal breathing OR if you can’t let your belly relax in this position, try lying on your back with your knees out to the sides. If you feel strain on your groin here, place a pillow, blankets or yoga blocks under the knees to allow them to relax out to the sides supported. If you feel strain on the low back, try placing a small, rolled towel under you. This position helps you release tension through the belly.
Step 1: Wrap a Theraband around the lower part of your ribcage with just a small amount of tension.
Step 2: Inhale, feel the band stretch.
Step 3: Exhale, feel the band loosen.
3. Table top hangout
Setup: Kneeling on your hands and knees with your arms under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Imagine the spine being long—think about tucking an orange under the chin to find length along the back of the neck.
Step 1: Inhale through the nose, expand lateral ribs and let the belly hang soft.
Step 2: Exhale through the mouth, slight abdominal engagement. Think about abdominals slightly pulling up and in.
Key tip: Rocus on softening the belly and letting it hang in full relaxation on every inhale.
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