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Strengthen the diaphragm to feel better & breathe more fully

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

My shoulders and neck had been aching for weeks. I felt tightness all of the time. While packing school lunches, I'd notice my shoulders gripped and I'd coach myself to "drop them down" and relax. While laying in bed I'd feel the tightness at the back of my neck, so I'd kneed my fingertips into my traps in an effort to coax the muscles to release. These steps didn't seem to help as much as I'd hoped. I knew it was a cry from my body letting me know that I was stressed. 'But I'm a yoga teacher, I practice yoga every day!', I reasoned, but questions came anyway: 'Why am I tight and stressed?! The poses, the Savasana at the end of the practice all help melt away tension and invite calm, right?'

Fortunately, at about around this same time, I came across a brief tutorial as I was scrolling through social media. A friend shared a video of herself demonstrating a "big breath", her shoulders lifting up high by her ears on the inhale, and then relaxing down on the exhale. She went on to share that this is what's known as a Vertical breath. This type of breath causes stress in the body (along with a whole slew of other ailments, BTW). What's more, 9 out of 10 adults have become vertical breathers. Hey, welcome to the club!

I realized then that it was time to train myself to breathe again.

Just as we practice yoga, we must practice breath. Breath work begins with Breath Awareness, and that's certainly something we cultivate and encourage during a yoga class. The average human takes 10-15 breaths per minute. In a day, then, that works out to about 21,000 breaths. When we are AWARE of our breath, even for 60min during a class, we unlock the potential to cleanse and nourish ourselves even more with each conscious breath we take.

What is often less understood, however, is HOW to breathe. And this is the kicker! When we breathe through the top of the body and in the chest, we use the neck and shoulder muscles. These are auxiliary muscles, not meant to be used to breathe. They are getting overworked. Hello, neck and shoulder pain! Until the breath moves to where it is intended to go, that discomfort won't go away. Period.

The Diaphragm

Here's a mini anatomy lesson. The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle. It is a thin sheet that lies beneath the lungs and is dome shaped. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens and draws the base of the lungs down. When the diaphragm relaxes (during the exhalation), it domes upward. If we're breathing with the shoulders and chest, do you think the diaphragm is being used to its potential? No. A Vertical breath is anatomically incongruous and biomechanically unsound. What that means is that essentially, most adults are breathing enough to survive, but not enough to thrive. In order to learn how to breathe (or rather, re-learn. You used to breathe this way as a child!), the breath needs to move back down to the lower part of the body.

Belly Breathing:

Like any other muscle in the body, the diaphragm can get weak and tight. When you do breath work you are retraining your muscles to become strong, flexible and to move smoothly. Start with this exercise. Either lying on your back or seated in a chair, put one hand between your collarbones, the other on your belly. Breathe in a way where your top hand does not move at all and you feel your belly expand under your bottom hand. Keep your eyes open so you can see the movement. Relax your shoulders, neck and chest muscles. Only the belly moves here. Rest after 20 breath cycles.

I'm happy to report that when I reach up for Extended Mountain pose, I notice a lot less strain these days. My shoulders and neck feel more like clay, rather than rocks. There has definitely been a correlation between feeling better, and consciously sending my breath into my belly. So get practicing and happy breathing!

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