Breathing as a Self-Management Tool: Insights from a Yoga Practitioner

This month, we focus on the topic of self-management. There are many things we can do to manage ourselves better and I offer a few tips in this video.

One simple thing you can immediately is take a few deep breathes. Remember to breathe deeply and correctly. But, how does one do that? The following is an interview with yoga practitioner Elizabeth Terry, who offers some suggestions for breathing and for self-management.

Sylvia says to breathe deeply and correctly. Is there a way to breathe “incorrectly?” How can one go about breathing properly?

Elizabeth Terry

Both your body and your mind can compromise your ability to breathe deeply.  For example, as you sit for a long period at a desk or computer working, your upper back may tend to round forward. The rounding forward of the upper back compresses the abdomen, limiting the ability of the diaphragm to move freely.  As a result, the breath becomes shorter.

Over time, the muscles of the chest can become tighter and the forward rounding becomes a body pattern.  You could say that breathing in this way is “incorrect”, but the cause is the habitual pattern of holding the body in a way that restricts the movement of the diaphragm and consequently limits the ability to breathe deeply.

Chronic stress can also compromise your ability to breathe freely.  The fight or flight or stress response is your body’s inborn survival mechanism to deal with stress.  A discrete series of physiological responses in the body prepares you to meet or retreat from a threat or danger, after which the body returns to stasis.  These responses include muscular tension, which contributes to a fast, shallow breathing rate as your heart rate increases.

Chronic stress is a part of modern life for many people.  For those experiencing chronic stress, which is the perception of a danger or a threat to our ability to cope, the fight or flight response is always turned on at some level.  This leads to a habitual shallow, short breath.   In an ironic twist, not only does chronic stress lead to shallow breathing, but the shallow, fast breath acts as a messenger to the body to maintain the stress response.

When we talk about breathing correctly, it is helpful to understand the “natural breath.”   To discover your natural breath, lie on the floor or your bed and place one hand on your belly and one on your chest, and just breathe normally.  You will notice that as you breathe in, the chest rises slightly and the abdomen expands.  As you breathe out, the chest relaxes and the abdomen moves toward the spine.  On inhale, the contraction of the diaphragm causes it move toward the abdomen, expanding the belly.  On exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, moving back to the lower rib, allowing the belly to relax toward the spine.

What steps or suggestions do you have for breathing properly? How does yoga help?

The first suggestion for breathing properly is to develop awareness.  Notice how you are sitting or holding the body.  Have your chest lifted and spine tall to avoid slouching.  Notice if your shoulders are tight and lifted toward your ears, which is often a posture taken on under stress.

The second suggestion is to do the following exercise on a daily regular basis. Take a few minutes twice a day and shut the door to your office.  Sit as tall as you can comfortably.  Place your hands on your belly.  Let your focus be on your exhale, and let your exhale be long and slow and smooth as you gently pull in your belly as you breathe out.  Do this for 12 breaths.  Then notice how you feel.  Don’t worry about the inhale.  Over time your breath will deepen.  The secondary effect will be to lower stress.  The long, slow exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system which tells the body and mind to relax.

Practicing yoga is another way to learn to breathe properly and deeply.  We begin by working with the body and creating new body patterns of movement so the breath can move freely.  We also work with the breath, both in movement in postures and in special breathing practices that help to develop a long smooth breath.  Working with the body and the breath requires focus, engaging the mind and helping to create a sense of space and peace.  When our body is at ease, our spine aligned, our mind calm, then our breath can be deep, smooth, long.

Deep breathing is suggested as a self-management tool. Can you explain the mind/body connection and what occurs when we take deep breathes?

We recognize that all aspects of the human system are interrelated – physical body, breath, intellect, personality, emotions.  Working with the breath is such an effective self-management tool because the breath acts to touch all aspects of our being.  When we breathe deeply and calmly, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we are essentially sending a message to our bodies and minds that we are safe, we can relax, we can handle what comes our way, we can focus our minds on the activity at hand with clarity, we can feel a sense of certainty in our ability to achieve our goals, and we can feel joy.

Elizabeth Terry, a 20 year yoga practitioner, is a registered yoga teacher at the 500-hour level, certified in the Krishnamacharya tradition.  She holds a Master of Humanities degree and  has been teaching yoga for 10 years at Harrisburg Area Community College, the Movement Center, and other venues in the Harrisburg Area.  For more information on classes, contact www.themovementcenter.net or eterryyoga@gmail.com.

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