I am thrilled to have my friend and colleague Jessica Wolf blog for us. I have been working with Jessica for more than 15 years and have also personally experienced her work. She is a remarkable healer whose focus is on the breath. I asked her to share her insights with us.
These days everyone has become conscious of conserving energy. When we think of energy conservation we think about the best ways to heat our homes or which car is most fuel efficient. But how many of us have given any thought to the fuel our bodies use? I’m talking about oxygen. To enjoy higher levels of energy, improved posture and lower our response to stress, it’s essential to learn to breathe efficiently – to be fuel efficient.
Breathing is indispensable and at its best when it is effortless. Most of us don’t think about the way we breathe. We usually take breathing for granted, we tend not to realize the harmful effects that faulty breathing can have on us, or the freedom we gain by improving how we breathe. Most of us begin life breathing fully and without strain. For many reasons, our natural breathing abilities and rhythms become compromised as we move through life. Breathing, involuntary in nature, is something we can influence. The way we breathe supports every system in our body. The beauty of the respiratory system is that it reaches peak efficiency when we don’t get in the way. In fact, the less you do, the better it is.
There is no single way to breathe. Breathing is on-going; we are either letting the breath out or allowing the breath to come in. We never have to worry about our next breath. It is the most adaptable fuel you can find. Unfortunately, the involuntary ease is often not the case. In today’s world, respiratory complications can arrive from a myriad of causes: pollution, stress, neuromuscular and skeletal problems, illness such as asthma, headache, backache and gastrointestinal problems, and last but not least, emotional problems. Increasingly, people are diagnosed with symptoms of anxiety and depression and are treated with prescription medication. In such cases, the medication causes drowsiness, a dulling of the senses and has similar effect on the respiratory system.
The breath is a great barometer for recognizing the habits that create road blocks and constrain our lives. We have an internal landscape which is always in motion. Breathing actually massages all our internal organs. When we hold our breath we stop that movement. We can learn to let go of the breath; to exhale and create space in the crush of our collapsed bodies. Have you ever noticed the moments when you tighten or push yourself? You’re probably also holding your breath. Exploring your own physical and emotional response to stress can lead to greater self awareness which can develop into a sense of freedom and ease.
Let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the breath. First of all, we need to remind ourselves that the body is three-dimensional and that breathing functions all the way around. The primary muscle of respiration is the diaphragm and it works in conjunction with all the muscles of the torso. The motion of the breath occurs in the middle of the torso which causes subtle changes in the abdomen, ribs and back.
The lungs are the containers for the body’s supply of air and are housed in the ribs. The diaphragm is a flexible dome lying just below the lungs, separating the chest from the abdomen. The movement of the diaphragm corresponds to the movement of the abdominal muscles. The motion of the diaphragm is responsible for the filling and emptying of the lungs. It’s upward movement helps move air out of the lungs and the downward movement encourages the lungs to fill.
Of course, we have other respiratory muscles, many of which also activate and support our skeletal framework. Intercostals, abdominal and back muscles are essential to the coordination of the breath and the body. Back motion, often neglected, is vital to priming the breath. When breathing is optimal, all the muscles of respiration work synergistically.
It’s best not to resort to active muscling of the breath. It isn’t necessary to suck air in or push the air out. Muscles will tighten in response to those pressures and cause a physical sensation of a tight chest and restricted airway. In fact, the respiratory system declines if the unconscious habit of holding the breath becomes habitual. And this is at quite an oxygen cost;when we force the breath with belly and chest muscles, we weaken the diaphragm, so that it becomes incapable of its full range of movement. As with any muscle, range of motion increases both strength and stretch.
The lungs are the supplier of the life giving air. So why is the exhale so important? If a container is going to be re-filled, it must first be emptied. We’re often told to “Take a deep breath.” Trying to take air in on top of stale air is like wiping a counter with a water logged sponge. When we breathe out, we are letting go of Co2, a known stressor to the nervous system. Everything depends on how much air gets out so that the automatic inhale can occur. The new fresh air arrives in response to the release of the breath.
A natural way to promote the exhalation is to let a sound out; an easy sigh or a whispered “ah,” remembering not to sink down when the breath leaves the body. I like to think of my breath as fuel, moving up along my spine. Then the new breath returns, easily and fully, just the way we like it.