Just Breathe! Introduction to Diaphragmatic Breathing & 1:2 Relaxation Breathing

Enjoy this post written by my dear friend who practices Physical Therapy in Minnesota. She is a believer in mind-body medicine and offers up some great detailed instruction on beginning a diaphragmatic breathing practice. 

First of all, let me start off by saying how excited and honored I am to be a guest blogger on Effort andEase! I have been a faithful follower thus far and can honestly say it has made a positive impact on my health & well-being.

I’m Rachel, a physical therapist by training. I work in a setting where I tend to see many, many patients on a regular basis who are suffering from physical pain (which is another topic for another time…). As I began my practice, I quickly began to realize just how many people coming to me are under varying levels of stress*, whether from a work environment that is not ideal or from the busyness that their personal lives bring (if you haven’t already, check out Natalie’s post about “Ditching Busy”

As I began my therapy practice, it became clear to me that our stress is only a fuel to the fire that is our bodily pain. It wasn’t until I began to have difficulties dealing with my own pain, stress and anxieties,though, that, with the help of a wonderful and inspiring colleague, I finally discovered the mind-body skill that is diaphragmatic breathing + 1:2 relaxation breathing.

Your diaphragm is a muscle in your abdominal wall and lower rib cage. It has a large surface area and is the most used muscle in our body. It functions during breathing by moving down during inhalation and creating a suction force to bring air into the lungs.

There are several reasons—stress, poor posture, too much external focus, etc.– why we may develop a paradoxical pattern of breathing that uses our chest for shallow breathing instead of our diaphragm for belly (or abdominodiaphragmatic) breathing. This is very inefficient and forces our neck and upper shoulder muscles to work much more than they are meant to on a regular basis. This leads to unnecessary muscle tension. Therefore, another added benefit to practicing and ultimately mastering diaphragmatic breathing is to reverse these poor breathing habits and, as a result, reduce tension. From my own experience, though, it took a good 2-3 months of practicing the breathing technique in a controlled, planned setting on a (somewhat) regular basis before I discovered my breathing habits were corrected throughout my day. My point here is that one should be patient and consistent with the practice. Mind body medicine is slow medicine but [in my opinion and others] the best kind of medicine!

When first learning the technique, I recommended that you lay on your back in a comfortable position.This takes your postural and anti-gravity muscles out of the equation. Some people prefer to prop their legs over some pillows or a bolster to help offload the lower back. I would also recommend that you put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to be able to monitor for movement. This provides biofeedback and improves self-awareness. Once you feel you have mastered the skill, you can place your hands wherever feels right for comfort.

The research supports a 1:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio of breath. For most people, about a 3 second inhale to a 6 second exhale works best to help regulate & balance the autonomic nervous system. You will inhale through your nose & exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. It is important to only take a normal amount of air in and to exhale slowly. It will take some practice to properly learn the timing and pacing of the breath; be patient.

On the inhale, your belly should rise slowly and your chest should minimally rise. On the exhale, your belly will fall and again your chest shouldn’t move too much (this is where the tactile cue of your hands comes in to monitor for the proper movement). Continue to practice the breathing for at least 5 minutes. The effects will be even greater, though, if you continue for 20 or more minutes. While it seems like a long time, I can tell you from experience that the time will go quickly!

As you breathe, turn your attention inward. How does your body feel? Where are you holding your tension? Can you relax that muscle away from feeling tense? The answer to that last question is YES. Your mind and your body are deeply the same, & you are in control!

As in yoga, if your mind wanders, do not beat yourself up! Just gently allow your mind to come back to focus on the task. After you finish, you may feel a sense of calm or rejuvenation. The beauty of this skill, though—and all mind body skills for that matter—is that the positive effects of your practice can compound on each other and in time will have a profound influence on your health and well-being**.

Congratulations on taking yet another step toward a healthier you!

I want to thank you all for taking the time to read my first-ever blog post about something I have become profoundly passionate about. I truly hope each of you will take some much-needed time out of your busy schedules to include this in your routine of self-care, because self-care is the key to healthcare.

Be well,

Rachel

*For more information on stress and its effects on our bodies, I recommend reading the informative and reader-friendly book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

**It is important to note that this technique is well-researched and well-documented in the literature to have positive health benefits. Please let Natalie at effortandease@gmail.com know if you are interested in learning of specific research articles.

Note from Natalie:

I am so excited to have Rachel as a guest blogger. We have been friends for a long time, and regardless of distance - we always find ways to connect on the same level. As we have "grown up", we have learned that our passions are very similar, both personally and professionally. I am grateful to Rachel for her contributions to Effort & Ease!