Friday, January 22, 2016

Pre-Yoga and Breathing

Breathing is one of the body’s many miracles. When we breathe we aren’t simply exchanging oxygen, but also massaging the abdominal organs, exercising the skeletal muscles and massaging the spinal disks. The breathing of the body affects every organ, muscle, joint and nerve. Because each and every cell of the body is involved with breathing, it is the starting point for good health.

When we breathe, the ribs should be in constant motion. When we inhale, the ribs expand and when we exhale, the ribs release. Consider what attaches to the ribs: virtually every shoulder muscle and neck muscle connects to the ribs. All the abdominal muscles, in turn, connect to the ribs. Most all the muscles of the back ultimately attach to the ribs. When we’re breathing healthily, the rhythmic movement of the ribs keeps these muscles in constant motion. The motion keeps them in good health.

Our muscles are like bodies of water. If there’s no movement in a pond, the water gets stagnant. Stagnant water cannot support the abundance of life we see in healthy, fresh water. Like a stagnant pond, stagnant muscles cannot maintain their vitality. In a matter of time, a stagnant muscle becomes stiff and painful.

Sadly, once we recognize the muscle has become stagnant, we generally react by stretching it. That’s akin to finding a stagnant pond and yelling at it to become vibrant. We can yell all we want, but until we get some movement in that body of water, it continues to stink. When our body’s constant internal massage of the muscles is interrupted, the muscles will inevitably become stiff and sore. Stretching those muscles does little to jumpstart the proper breathing because the tight muscle is often the result of and not the cause of inadequate breathing. Until we pay attention—directly— to the breathing, stretching often does little to affect lasting change.

Ironically, sore muscles are also oxygen deficient. Using muscles requires a constant supply of fresh oxygen. That’s why we start breathing harder and our heart rate increases when we go running. If we cannot keep up with the muscle’s need for oxygen, the muscles get sore. If our breathing is consistently shallow, our muscles are likely oxygen deficient. Again, simply stretching or exercising does not solve the problem. We must directly study the breathing so that our baseline, normal, everyday breath is vital and robust. Then running, biking, yoga, etc. are of profound benefit.

Breathing is also linked to our immune system. We are seeing an epidemic of immune system disorders, particularly autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease is when the immune system is overactive and attacks its own tissues. Conditions such as arthritis, gout, rheumatism, allergies, psoriasis, eczema, Crohn’s disease, and lupus, to name a few, are all autoimmune disorders. An overactive immune system is related to the breath.

When we breathe, the diaphragm should move in a very particular way (covered in detail in the March 30th, 2009 blog entry.) The proper diaphragm movement gives the A-OK signal to the brain. If the diaphragm moves otherwise, the brain receives the full-alert signal. We’ve all experienced this.

Imagine you’re walking alone down a dark trail. You’re enjoying the quiet solitude when you hear a twig snap in the forest behind you. What do you think you’d do? Likely, you would gasp. The gasp (paradoxic breathing) is a reversal of the body’s proper diaphragm movement and a sensible response to a high-stress or dangerous situation. The gasp alerts the brain to put all systems on full alert. The skeletal muscles tense (particularly neck and shoulders), the blood pressure spikes upward, and blood is diverted from the digestive tract to the skeletal muscles. In full alert mode, the body is prepared for something bad to happen, so the immune system is ready to fight the infections arising from the peril (cuts, scrapes, gouges, etc.)

Unfortunately, many of us live with diaphragms that don’t move properly. As a result, we’re constantly signaling our bodies to live in full-alert mode. Over time, the overactive immune system begins to attack its own tissues and autoimmune disease sets in. The elevated blood pressure of full-alert mode increases our risk of heart attack and stroke. The neck and shoulder muscles stay tight until they become a literal pain in the neck. The digestive organs don’t receive adequate blood flow and we develop digestive problems.

Why don’t we breathe properly? Often the cause is simply structural. We don’t breathe properly because we’re using the diaphragm muscle to hold our bodies upright. When the diaphragm is involved with postural support, it’s too busy to breathe.

Using the diaphragm muscle for postural support is technically called hydraulic stabilization, or Valsalva. Hydraulic stabilization is generally the result of ineffective postural support. If the core postural support muscles aren’t doing what they should, the body recruits nearby muscles to stand in. The diaphragm, unfortunately, is one of the stand-in muscles.

Maintaining an upright spine is unique to human beings. Most of the animal kingdom enjoys a spine horizontal to the Earth’s surface. While being upright confers many advantages (easier to see at the movie theater and to drive a car,) it does pose unique challenges to our structure. How we maintain our upright spine, with which muscles working and which muscles relaxed, determines our ability to breathe and move comfortably in our bodies. Unfortunately, most people are using their diaphragms to hold their body upright (hydraulic stabilization) and binding much of their vital energy in the process.

Proper support for the torso comes from below. It’s similar to a baby’s blocks or building a new house. We start with the base/foundation and build upward. It’s impractical to start building a house with the roof and work downward, yet this is how many of us hold up our bodies: we hold ourselves up from the neck and shoulders.

Holding ourselves up with tense shoulders is such a common pattern, that yoga/Pilates/fitness teachers have the mantra, shoulders down and back. What’s missing in that statement is, why are the shoulders up by the ears in the first place? Usually it’s a result of hydraulic stabilization; as the diaphragm steadies our lower back, the neck/shoulders have to steady the mid-back. It’s a cascading stream of problems, and we generally start somewhere in the middle, rather than addressing the first and true cause. It’s easy to treat symptoms – it’s much more demanding to treat causes.

In the inner-back pelvis reside some of the most important muscles of postural support. The inner back pelvis includes the psoas, iliacus and pelvic floor musculature. When these function properly, the spine is properly supported and breathing is uninhibited. When the inner-back pelvis is asleep, we default to hydraulic stabilization.

Pre-Yoga was developed in response to the near-universal occurrence of improper breathing and hydraulic stabilization. There are many yoga proponents who maintain that persistently practicing yoga postures will develop the inner-back pelvis and cure improper breathing. I wish that was true, as teaching yoga would be much simpler if that was the case. Sorry to say, I’ve not found much evidence to support that claim. If the inner-back pelvis was dormant and we used hydraulic stabilization for postural support on our first day of yoga practice, we’re generally using the same strategies in year ten of our yoga practice. Yes, we become more sophisticated in our movements, and more adept at hiding the dysfunctions, but the dysfunctions remain. Unless and until we get to the root of things, we’re shifting appearances rather than healing ourselves.


Within this practice of Yoga is an amazing opportunity. Can we utilize this opportunity to seep into deeper layers of ourselves?

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