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Breathing with your Pelvic Floor

I probably don’t need to tell you how important breathing is. It’s the source of life! We begin with our first breath, and end with our last. But what if I told you there was more to it than just inhaling and exhaling?

 

Pranayama: there’s an art to breathing that has been studied and practiced over centuries. It’s the basis of medicine and spiritual practice for many cultures all over the world. It’s believed by some to be our direct communication to Spirit and Heaven above. Who knew something so seemingly automatic could be so profound? Research has found that breathing connects with the various pathways of our brain, activates our lymphatics, assists with digestion, plays a part in sleep cycles and rest, regulates pain, and works mechanically with the core stabilizing muscles of our abdominal cavity. Breathing is so important! Research has also found that the technique we use to breathe interplay's with the part of the brain known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). To put it simply, the ANS is split into two categories: Sympathetic (Stress) and Parasympathetic (Rest).


Most of us spend much more time in our Sympathetic (Stress) System, which you can imagine, is not a pleasant place to live in. Luckily, one of the best tools for helping to switch over to the Parasympathetic (Rest) System is the breath. Chronic stress becomes a self-perpetuated cycle, driven further by poor mechanical habits in the breath. The good news is, we can use good breathing habits to break that cycle, and like flipping a switch in the brain, take us away from the Sympathetic loop and coax the body gently over to Parasympathetic relaxation. So what does “stress breathing” look like and how can we change it?


The basic break-down of a stress breath looks like this:

  • Elevated shoulders

  • Chest Expands Upward

  • Neck and shoulder muscle activation

  • Short Inhale/Exhale Cycle

Stress breathing => Activation of Sympathetic Nervous System => Stress hormones released => perpetuation of more stress breathing...


If you've ever experienced a panic or anxiety attack, you know that it feels as though you can't quite catch you breath, not matter how much air you take in. You start breathing more rapidly, deeper, but still the breath won't come, and before you know it you're panicking more and...


Wait.


This is what the rest breath looks like...

  • Relaxed shoulders

  • Chest and Ribs expand gently outward

  • Abdominal filling/stretching

  • Long Inhale/Exhale Cycle

Rest breathing => control over the breathing => Activation of Parasympathetic Nervous System => Relaxation of the muscles, increased oxygen, sense of calm, heart rate lowers, panic eases.


At this point you might be thinking, “Oh man, I have been stress breathing. Well, that stresses me out! So, how do I stop?” Don’t panic! (That would be counterproductive to this exercise, wouldn’t it?) Let’s go slow. I’ll teach you step by step how you can re-train old habits and learn to breathe like the Yogi you are. (You just don’t know it yet).


Step One: Abdomino-Diaphragmatic Breathing

You can breathe in any position, but I find that the best way to relearn how to breathe is resting comfortably on your back (propped up on pillows, if needed for comfort). You body and mind can relax, and you can use your hands to give you feedback on technique. Once you feel you have mastered the breath laying down, try it in different positions: side-lying, on your stomach, in Child’s Pose, in Table Top Pose, Easy Pose, sitting still in a chair or in your car, standing in line; the options are endless! So, let’s begin:

  • Rest comfortably on your back or in a reclined, supported position

  • Prop some pillows beneath the knees to alleviate tension on the back

  • Place one hand gently over your chest, the other over your belly button

  • Close your eyes; feel your body move beneath your hands

  • Slowly draw in a deep breath through your nose (if you can; through your mouth is fine if you have allergies)

  • Focus on allowing the air to fill you up like a balloon, inflating the abdominals

  • Feel the hand over your abdomen rise slowly

  • The hand over the chest may rise, but this should be less than the abdomen

  • The hand over the chest should only rise after the abdominals are fully inflated

  • Now relax, allowing the air to exit easily from your mouth

  • Feel how both hands easily return to their original resting position

  • Practice this breath for a while; don’t focus on time or repetitions

Just Breathe.



Victory! (And the Victorious Breath)

Congratulations! You just learned the first step in your Pranayama practice. But just like any skilled practice, there are multiple layers to the technique of breathing. If you are one of the many people who find themselves trapped in the Sympathetic loop, you might also noticed that even something as calming as the Abdomino-Diaphragmatic Breath can feel a bit rushed and stressful. But with patience, practice, and a little assistance from the Yogic Ujjayi Breath, victory is yours! In fact, that’s what it’s called: Victorious Breath, also known as the Ocean Breath for it’s soothing, waves-inside-a-seashell quality.


We make this sound by creating a gentle tension in the glottis, located deep in the throat. Have you ever fogged a mirror or a window and wrote a little message in it with your finger? Well, that’s basically Ujjayi, though less forceful. When you exhale using Ujjayi, it slows the flow of air and calms the nervous system. You’ll find your breathing technique become slower, calmer, and more empowering as well. Practice a few Ujjayi Breathes laying on your back. Remember to inhale deeply, using your new Abdomino-Diaphragmatic Breath. Notice how the air releases gradually, causing a gentle activation in the muscles of your abdominal wall as it hugs lightly into your spine. Don’t force it. Just breathe. Create a breath sound you can hear. Isn’t it nice? Like listening to the ocean...

Now let’s try a little Ratio Breathing. Now that you can slow your exhale, try using this new technique to create a 1:2 length of the breath cycle. For example, if you inhale for 2 seconds, use the Ujjayi to exhale for 4 seconds (or longer). Now we’re really getting into the Parasympathetic mind set! The nervous system loves these breathing practices, and the better you become, the easier they will be. Do you know what else loves breathing? Your pelvic floor!


Breathing…Down There: Basic Pelvic Floor Breathing

Your body is a beautiful temple. Well, actually its more like a can of Coke. Our deep inner core is formed of an anatomical top, bottom, and cylindrical side just like your favorite sparkling beverage. I live in Texas, where everything is Coke, so that’s how we’ll think of it.

The top and bottom of our body’s Coke Can are formed from the breathing diaphragm on top (you're a master of that one now), and the pelvic floor diaphragm on the bottom. Do you know why your belly expands when you breathe with your diaphragm? It’s because the diaphragm is a muscle that must contract in order to pull air into the body. When it contracts, it descends or moves down into the intra-abdominal cavity, belly expands, and the pelvic floor is stretched from the gentle internal pressure. When you breathe out, everything recoils back to where it was, much like a balloon being filled and emptied of air.

So, what happens if you’ve been practicing a breathing pattern that doesn’t use the diaphragm as much? The pelvic floor doesn’t get the stretch, and over time, may become shortened/tight, weak, and even forget how to move. Think about it: if your pelvic floor isn’t moving up/inside the pelvis and supporting your bladder when you cough or sneeze or laugh…tissue anyone? And how about a pelvic floor that can’t relax? That could make it pretty difficult for anything to go in or come out…if you know what I mean. So, how do you get your Coke Can back in gear? Well, the first step is – you guessed it – learning to breathe with the pelvic floor.

Luckily, you’ve already learned most of what you need to know to perform this breath. We’re simply adding a “Kegel” to our Abdomino-Diaphragmatic-Ujjayi breath upon exhale. Think of gently pushing the air out of your lungs by lifting your pelvic floor. It doesn’t need to be a hard contraction; less is more.


The basic rhythm is:

Breath in/Belly Expands

Breathe out/Ujjayi/Gentle Kegal

Breathe in/Belly Expands/Let Kegal Go

And so on…


So, you see? Getting better control of you health, and your pelvic floor function, can be as simple as taking the time out to practice your Pranayama. Try it while falling asleep, I think you'll find it makes the task a bit easier. These are also the first steps in mediation; focus on the breath. I spend a great deal of time talking about, teaching, and practicing these as well as numerous other breathing techniques in my private practice. In fact, if you told me I could only pick one variety of skills to ever teach my patients again, it would be the breath. Life source. The beginning and the end. Connection to Spirit.


And return to Self.

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