I’ll be honest, I had a REALLY hard time appreciating that breath work was as important as what seemed like everyone I knew was touting. It appeared that no matter the problem, the answer that was being given was “fix your breathing”! I felt like someone in a room where a joke was told and everyone was laughing BUT me.
What didn’t help is when I explored why people were so focused on breath work, the answers lied typically in “it trains your diaphragm”. Okay, I get that your diaphragm is part of what some call your “inner unit” of your core, but why and how did you determine that it was the problem of literally everything that you did? After all, we all have to breathe right?
The diaphragm works with other deep core stabilizers as reflexive muscles of stability that creates spinal stability on an unconscious level. Issues with these muscles working together can cause issues of low back pain and movement dysfunction.
My views on breathing actually didn’t change till I started practicing tai chi. I know what you are thinking, “the stuff old people do in the park?” Actually, tai chi is a martial art that focuses on what is known as “internal arts”, that is really being aware of what is happening more inside of the body than the outside movement as a base.
I had started the practice after reading Dr. Peter Wayne’s book, “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi”, in the book there was quite a bit of literature shared about tai chi helping anxiety/depression, fatigue, balance, and chronic pain. All that I was experiencing after my spinal disease had led to 7 significant surgeries in 10 years. More Western chronic pain management practices were leading to very little changes, so I needed to do SOMETHING different.
I had the very unique opportunity to work with a world renown tai chi expert and grandmaster that helped me appreciate many aspects that get overlooked in such practice.
A big part of tai chi is breath work, that is largely because it is known to both calm the body and help generate power (yes, there are very powerful movements in tai chi as well as slow). Calm the mind huh? Well, that doesn’t seem to have a lot to do wit the diaphragm does it?
It is true the vagus nerve does attach to a portion of the diaphragm as well as pass through. What is the vagus nerve though? I know, you have probably seen everyone talk about the vagus nerve when it comes to calming anxiety and the mind, but what is it?
The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves and is involved in…
-reflex actions, such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting
The vagus nerve plays a role in the autonomic nervous system, which controls actions people do unconsciously, such as breathing and digestion.
The vagus nerve also plays a role in what scientists call the gut-brain axis (ever notice how your stomach feels butterflies when you feel nervous for example?). Current research is exploring the gut-brain axis to look for links between conditions such as obesity and depression. This is why UCL Health recommends practices like diaphragmatic breathing to work with the nervous system…
“A form of slow deep breathing in which the diaphragm contracts on the inhale and relaxes on the exhale. This kind of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.”
Funny how ancient practices like martial arts and yoga have known this for centuries, yet, we get all excited when we start talking about the vagus nerve and diaphragm. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is how many meditation practices start and helps people become more aware of their body as well.
Reducing the sympathetic state can result in immediate changes in mobility both because the nervous system reduces the brakes it has put on as well as relaxing muscle tension restricting movement.
It makes sense why such breathing is the foundation of tai chi practice where we are trying to be as efficient as possible with our movement and not hold extra tension that causes problems both for our movement abilities and the function of our body. In other words, you don’t have to possess any desire to be a tai chi master to benefit from these ideas, but the concepts probably DO have a lot of carry over to your training.
When we reduce the chronically stimulation of the sympathetic system (the fight or flight system) which has so many implications for our health (from cardiovascular disease to obesity, and many more diseases) we find ourselves not only in a healthier state physically, but also in a mental state as well.
If we are constantly in our fight or flight state then we agitated easier, many people can’t think clearly, they feel fatigued more, and we don’t make great decisions like choosing to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or eat something not that nutritious to make ourselves “calm”. These are all artificial means that don’t actually maintain a better mental state as well as can cause us to feel worse at the end of the day. That is something I wish all the breathing people would focus more on than the diaphragm.
In fitness, so many things are about our mental state and if learning to use specific breathing strategies to help navigate our attitudes and behaviors can be a MASSIVE win for many, especially when it comes to achieving a wide variety of fitness goals.
However, the BEST thing is to probably combine breath work and movement. Sure, there are people that THINK they are do so with hyper specific breathing and movement exercises, but I’ve seen little in those helping people do better and very often create more frustration because they tend to me unnecessarily complicated.
As explained by this 2013 paper in “Affective Disorders and Psychosomatic Research”, “Meditative movement may use either prescribed movement (where the required motion is specific and must be learned and practiced) or spontaneous free-form movement (where the practitioner allows their body to move spontaneously on its own). In some cases, the movement used may be extremely subtle, to the point of being invisible.”
Movements like those I show above combine not only mind, movement, and breath, but help us focus on moving the fascial lines more effectively.
Meditative movement is better because it helps coordinate three key elements, mind, movement, and breath. Mind-body practices are becoming even more popular because you can’t separate the mind from the body or the body from the mind. For people that often feel difficulties focusing or controlling their mind, movement can be a big help! Like when people say they can’t sit and meditate they often CAN do a movement where they focus on how they are using their body and this helps their mind.
The benefits of such practice have been shown to help improve joint pain, increase mobility of the whole body, enhance balance, reduce cortisol, improve sleep, greater cardiovascular health, increased recovery from stress, better mental well-being, and more, it is still hard to believe that THESE are not the areas we focus upon in making these practices pretty standard in fitness and health.
That is why we are trying to do just that! Don’t miss 25% on our Myofascial Integrated Movement program HERE and Breath Course (where we break down many exercises in great detail) HERE with code “summer25”
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