Break Up With Stress – Part Two – Abdominal Breathing

Break Up With Stress Week Two, Abdominal Breathing:
In order to release stress you must turn on your parasympathetic nervous system so your body can down-regulate. This is often referred to as “rest and digest.”  There are several ways to dump stress, this week we cover one of them, abdominal breathing.
These days most people live with their system on overdrive. One reason is the tendency toward quick, shallow breathing, primarily in the chest area. This elicits a “fight or flight” response. You can you learn to use your diaphragm to slow down and deepen your breath and stimulate the “rest and digest” response.
Anatomy of the Breath:
Your diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that lives in the base or your rib structure. It separates your heart and lungs from your internal abdominal organs. When you inhale your diaphragm is supposed to move down into your abdomen. This causes the abdominal region to swell. The diaphragm draws air into your lungs like a vacuum. When you exhale the diaphragm moves back up into its resting place pressing the air out and deflating your lungs.
Did you get that? Your respiratory diaphragm is a muscle! When you do yoga or work out you think of strengthening and stretching your muscles. But have you ever thought about stretching or strengthening your diaphragm? 
Interesting facts about your diaphragm:
1. it is both under conscious and autonomic control. 
2. its movement influences your nervous system by stimulating and sending nerve impulses to your brain.
3. it moves in harmony (or not) with your pelvic floor muscles.
4. its fibers connect to your lumbar vertebra, psoas and quadratus lumborum, and your rib structure therefore it can effect posture and even be responsible for back pain.
Step One: Receptive Core
Start by laying down on your back in constructive rest posture. You can bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, or you can place a bolster or some pillows under your knees.
Watch your breath. Where in your body you are breathing. Slow your breath down. Invite your belly to relax and be open to receive your breath.
If you tend to hold in your belly then it may take some time to let it go. I myself am a recovering “tummy tucker!” Practice allowing your belly to rise when you inhale, and fall when you exhale with as little effort as possible.
This type a breathing turns on your parasympathetic nervous system and begins to help you nurse your diaphragm back to good health. By allowing your belly to swell you are literally allowing your diaphragm to do its job which is to move down into your belly. Conversely, if you tend to hold your tummy in you are restricting the movement of your diaphragm and the depth of your breath.
Once you are skillful at relaxing into a passive, receptive breath you can work with two variations:
1. make your exhalation longer than your inhalation
2. gently pause after your exhalation and retaining for a moment on empty, before you inhale again. Here is a video to help you:
Step Two: Give Your Diaphragm a Workout
Start by watching your native breath. Slow your heart rate down with abdominal breathing. Now you can begin working with some active breathing practices.
When you get to the top of your inhale give the breath a little help, take in a little more breath.
Then exhale very actively using your abdominal muscles to help squeeze the air out. Even when you think you have released all the air, give it an extra nudge to press the rest of the air out.
Pause. Relax. Wait. Let the next inhale and exhale be completely passive.
Repeat an active round followed by a passive round five times.
Then continue with your passive, receptive core breathing. Notice if you have more breathing room, are more rested, or even have a little burst of energy.
Step Three: Stretch and Strengthen Your Diaphragm:
As I mentioned above your diaphragm is a muscle and it’s beneficial to learn how to stretch and strengthen it. Sandbag breathing is a great way to start.
At the yoga studio we have 10 pound sandbags. Don’t worry if you don’t have one, instead use a bag of rice or beans, or even pet food! 5 pounds should be enough.
Once you have down-regulated your system using the instructions from step one place the weight across your abdomen. Continue to breath normally. The weight will cause your diaphragm to work harder when you inhale. When you exhale the weight will create a bit of a stretch for your diaphragm.
Here are two variations to play with:
1. At the top of your inhale hold the weight up for a few seconds. Relax and let the weight help do the exhaling for you.
2. After holding the weight up actively exhale using your muscles to squeeze the air out. Then relax completely with the weight in your belly on empty breath. This will give your diaphragm a stretch.
Once complete remove the weight and return to passive, receptive breath. Notice you have more breathing room and that you are more relaxed.

Whichever of these breathing practices you do, I bet you will sleep well tonight!!!

Tune in next week for more ways to break up with stress.

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