If I could teach every single person just one skill to physically manage stress and regulate the nervous system, it would be proper breathing. It is foundational in somatic release and a necessary skill that is woven into every technique - and safe movement. Proper breathing with the diaphragm not only helps to regulate our nervous systems and improve our oxygen intake, but simultaneously strengthens our respiratory muscles. Oh, and it provides a dopamine boost.
First, let's take a look at the diaphragm itself, which is a muscle located below the lungs. When we talk about diaphragm breathing, the more literal way to put it would be breathing below the diaphragm.
This is why you'll also hear it called belly breathing. Since the diaphragm is just below the lungs, it’s important to expand our bellies to activate that muscle. When we breathe into our chests, we are essentially breathing above where our diaphragms are located, which also results in taking in less oxygen than we could.
One of my favorite examples of this is babies. If you watch a baby breathe, they will inhale their bellies out nice and big, and exhale them back in - this is very natural diaphragm breathing; it's our body's way of breathing while we are in a relaxed state - parasympathetic rest and digest - but trauma, anxiety, stress, and poor mechanics can get in the way of this and eventually, proprioceptively, we learn to instinctively breathe through our chests instead.
Why? When we are anxious, stressed or triggered, we often breathe into our chests taking short shallow breaths, which makes sense since respiration increases with our heart rate as we become adrenalized. To interrupt this stress response when adrenaline hits, we can stimulate our vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slow the heart rate through diaphragm breathing... which I love because we can breathe literally anywhere.
There are two ways to do it: one is resting, and one is active. Resting diaphragm breathing is the way we want to be breathing at all times; active breathing is when we are working to improve our respiratory capacity and proprioceptively retrain our brains to do this automatically instead of the shallow chest breathing many of us have adopted as the norm.
Resting Diaphragm Breathing
For resting diaphragm breathing, sit or lie on your back. Keep one hand on the chest and the other on the belly for body awareness. Inhale and expand the belly out feeling it push against that hand. Slowly exhale, letting the belly fall back into a natural point. The chest should rise after the belly on the inhale as the lungs fill. Continue doing so at a natural breathing rate, nice and slow and deep. If you're struggling to know if you're doing it properly, if you're able, flip over into a prone position on your stomach and try it that way. For some, feeling the stomach push into the floor on the inhale is a better proprioceptive input - play around to find what works for you.
Active Diaphragm Breathing
To make this an active breathing exercise, you can stay here or a enter more challenging position like tabletop. The only difference: on the exhale, you will continue drawing the deep core and pelvic floor in toward the spine for an active contraction; think about bracing for being tickled while you have to urinate - badly. This should feel like a deep ab and pelvic floor crunch, if you will. This is not about taking huge breaths – that can make us dizzy – it’s about concentrated movement and that little extra push of engagement on the exhale. Inhale expanding the belly while keeping space between shoulders and ears; repeat.
One of my favorite ways to do this and add in some spinal mobility is through the cat cow, which is just diaphragm breathing with movement. Inhale as you expand the front of the body and tilt the tailbone and chest toward the ceiling, active exhale curling the front of the body inward like a potato bug. For supine pelvic tilts, just focus on pelvic movement with your breath. BTW, this is one of my favorite ways to massage my low back while calming my nervous system - don't underestimate supine pelvic tilts!
Cat cow variations are included in the rounded shoulder mobility kit, as well as a gif for diaphragm breathing to reference.
Add a Somatic Twist
One of my favorite somatic techniques is doing "wanted and unwanted" as I breathe, inhaling the wanted and exhaling the unwanted. There are SO MANY ways to do this that stimulate different parts of our sensory experience. Here are some examples: inhale a scent you like, exhale one you don't; inhale a helpful statement, exhale an unhelpful statement; inhale light, exhale darkness; inhale a good memory, exhale a bad; inhale physical warmth, exhale physical chills; inhale joy, exhale despair; inhale fresh clouds, exhale black smoke; inhale pink, exhale brown.... you get the point. This can be particularly useful for people who cannot traditionally meditate because they're overthinking their thoughts (takes one to know one) or having differing abilities like aphantasia.
Until next time...
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