Sometimes, I see a patient who has several different things going on and it is hard to know where to start. With experience (and the advice of a wise tutor ringing in my ears from many years ago) I have learned that getting my patient to breathe better is often a brilliant place to begin. This is in part academic and in part instinctive. Academically I know how important it is to get enough oxygen to tissues, especially tissues trying to heal from injury or whenever pain is involved. There is a reason birthing mothers are told so much about breathing! Movement of the diaphragm causes the lungs to inflate and deflate, but I also know that it massages the abdominal contents and helps digestion. Recently, an amplified MRI of somebody breathing caught my attention, and the rhythmic rise and fall of the diaphragm even seemed to perform a gentle massage of the brain by moving everything up and everything down. Breathing is clearly a whole- body activity.
Instinctively though, we just know the importance of the breath, don’t we? Of course, go mere minutes without it and the consequences are dire but there also seems to be a deep connection between our inner being and our breath. We all know the feeling of a contented, fill your boots sigh or recognise the peaceful shuddery sigh of a baby finally asleep. Go to any mindfulness course and breathing will be the number one thing to think about. Watch anybody spiral into panic or anger and the first piece of advice is to take a deep breath. Brand new parents in the delivery room hold their own breath while waiting to hear their baby’s first lung-filled scream. Breathing is emotional as much as it is physical.
The problem is that very few of us adults breathe well. For this, our bodies need to be in a state of “up and out.” That is, standing tall, shoulders relaxed and back, palms forward, head on our neck in line with our spine and not all squished up in the front. Anybody who spends their working life stuck at a computer knows that their working posture is pretty much the opposite of ideal. The result? Breathing up into your already tight shoulders and neck, shallow breathing that does the job but only just, sluggish digestion, brain fog and a host of other things.
So how to improve this? Us osteopaths may be the experts when it comes to the anatomy of breathing but on this occassion I am going to reflect on how our friend and world-renowned singing teacher gets people to breathe and marry it up with our own knowledge. So, have a break from the desk, follow these instructions and take a deep breath!
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, weight equally over each foot.
Imagine you have a large kangaroo tail extending from your tail bone and that it is forming a tripod with your legs. This will get you centered and stable.
Keep you jaw soft, tongue un-plastered from the roof of your mouth and leave a little space between your back teeth. Imagine a soft peach under your chin that you neither want to let fall to the floor or squash.
Now first, you need to breathe all the way out, often an overlooked requirement of breathing well! Really get all that air out through the mouth but don’t force the next in-breath. Instead, just pause ever so slightly and wait for that spontaneous intake. Your body will do it, but this time you are going to pay attention to it.
Breathe in through your nose and be aware of the air travelling back to that spot where nose and mouth meet. Our singing teacher friend talks about “surprised eyes” to really help that feeling of opening up your whole face.
As air travels down the middle of the chest, some people are aware of where the windpipe branches into two behind the breastbone and into the lungs either side but really don’t worry if you don’t get this. Try to get a feeling of your breath going down and to your back rather than forcing the tummy out. Imaginary wings unfurling on your back may be a helpful image.
Keep that stable tripod stance and do your best to keep your shoulders soft, your breastbone gently lifted, and your jaw relaxed as you gradually fill every “corner” of your chest and back. Have a feel about. Does anything feel stuck or is there anywhere you feel you can’t get the breath to? Don’t worry. Just play around with it and gently practice as you repeat this whole exercise a few times. Sometimes a scarf or towel wrapped around your lower ribs with a little bit of tension can help focus the attention to those hard to reach spots rather than up in the shoulders where we tend to hang out.
When it is time to let it all out, the key is to avoid letting everything collapse in a heap but instead to let the ribs and back gradually deflate as the breath leaves steadily. Sometimes it is harder to walk down a mountain without falling over than to walk up it, so don’t be surprised if this is the trickier part of your breathing exercise.
Hopefully having done this a few times you’ll start to feel the lovely after-effects of a proper, effective, deep breath in. Pretty soon it will be second nature and during a stressful meeting or when running for a bus your new- found full body breathing will come to your aid, but if you notice that your jaw just won’t let go or ribs tweak and squeak then give us a shout to get things on the move. We can’t promise your singing will improve but we’ll certainly do our best to get your whole body breathing better!