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Educator's Corner: Just Breathe

Did you know that your nervous system has two parts? The central nervous system (CNS), the nerves that run through the head and spine, sends signals to the body to defend itself, run from danger, or simply not move (fight, flight, freeze). The peripheral nervous system (PNS), consisting of all other nerve pathways in the body, handles the relax and heal part of the nerve network (rest, digest, repair, and relax). Every day we encounter different stimulus (such as driving to work, managing schedules, or interacting with other people) that send signals through our nervous system, activating either the PNS or CNS portions of our brain. These are called stressors and are healthy, and necessary for survival. However, when the CNS receives too much input (or to many signals) at the same time, our nervous system can get stuck in the CNS signaling pathway, causing rapid breathing, increased heartrate, and constant fight, flight, freeze responses. Sound familiar? What if there were something you could do about it? Well, actually, there is. In this Educator’s Corner post, we will talk about how simply altering the way you breathe (breathwork) can help you activate your PNS system, allowing you to experience relaxing, calming, and healing benefits anywhere, not just on the massage table.

Let’s Talk Muscles

Before we dive into what you can do, lets talk a little bit about how breathing works in the body. That’s right, it’s time for a little bit of anatomy to come your way (like Monica, but much better). The body is a whole system, so I like to say that everyone helps with everything, but for today, lets focus on 4 of the main muscles in the breathing game: the diaphragm, the internal and external intercostals, the scalenes, and the subclavius muscle.

The Diaphragm: Attaching to the xiphoid process and lower rib cage, this muscle helps to pull the lungs downward, expanding their air capacity and allowing us to inhale (breath in). When released, the lungs again rise upward to create the exhale (breath out). When the diaphragm fully extends, the deep, “belly breath” used by actors, singers, yogis, and (hopefully) you and me, is made possible.

The Internal and External Intercostals: Just as movement of the lungs is important in creating a deep breath, so is movement of the rib cage. As the lungs expand, filling with air, the ribs also move outward, creating a greater inner chest space, and more room for the lungs to expand. Running across the interior and exterior borders of the ribs, the internal and external intercostals provide support for the ribs and expand the ribcage, creating space for the lungs to expand on inhalation and compress on exhalation.

The Scalenes: Have you ever been told to take a deep breath, and then breath even deeper? Maybe you have felt that last effort for more breath in your neck? Weird, right? Well, the scalenes along with subclavius (located along the middle third of the clavicle bone), stretching from the cervical spine (C3-C7) to the first and second ribs, raise the first rib upward, allowing for that final intake of breath during deep inhalation. The scalene muscles are also activated during the startle response when the body is surprised or scared. Let’s take a moment to give a shout out to all brothers, BFFs, and haunted corn mazes! Thanks for keeping my scalenes in shape!

Okay Yeah….

But What IS Breathwork, Anyway?

Now that we understand a little bit more about the muscle behind the breath, let’s explore a little bit about what Breathwork is, how to apply it, and most importantly, how knowing all of this can benefit you.

Although it has been practiced for centuries, the breathwork commonly practiced today didn’t really surface until the Raising Consciousness Era of the 1960s-70s. Like many things rising up from that era, people, myself included, may often wonder, what is that weirdness and what is it actually doing to my body? I invite you to explore with me this question through the remainder of this post. So, what is Breathwork? Breathwork is the act of conscious, controlled breathing done especially for relaxation, meditation, or therapeutic purposes. Ok, so what? Let’s break it down. Breathwork, or controlled breathing, also helps to activate the PNS system, which, if you remember from the beginning, oversees rest, digest, and healing. The relax and heal of the brain, which helps to regulate heart rate, breath, the nervous system, and other body systems. So, Breathwork helps with stress reduction, mental clarity, and overall calmness. Are you ready for the results, but not sure you have time for Breathwork along with housework, homework, office work, and all the other “-works” in your life? I get that. Did you know that Breathwork can literally be done in 30 seconds or less? Try it for yourself.

Breathwork Exercises

Are you ready to take 3 deep breaths? Follow this this!

Breathing Exercise #1:

Inhale (10 seconds)

Exhale (10 seconds)

Repeat (3-4 times)

This exercise allows you to have time to think and process before reacting to a stimulus.

Exercise #2:

Got 1 minute? Try this!

Turn your head to the non-dominant side (activate those scalenes)

Inhale (10 seconds)

Exhale (10 seconds)

This exercise helps the body not only have time to think but, turning the head to the non-dominant side helps the body to calm down as well.

Breathing exercise #3:

Got 2-5 minutes? Try this:

Turn your head to the non-dominant side (activate those scalenes)

Inhale (10 seconds)

Exhale (10 seconds)

Repeat (3-4 times)

Just like the first two examples, this breathing exercise allows for time to calm down and process. The hum helps to reprogram the nervous system signals by interrupting them and giving them something new to process, allowing you to better handle whatever life throws your way.

Breathing Exercise #4:

Want to take it to the next level? Combine any of the above breathing exercises with movement. This allows time to think and process, while adding stretching allows oxygen and blood to flow to your muscles, clearing waste and making room for new, calmer neurological signals from the PNS.

Scalene stretch:

Sitting straight,

turn head to the left

Hold for 10-30 seconds.

Repeat with the right side.

Sun Salutation

Stand straight with feet apart

Extend hands over the head

Lift right foot (optional)

Slowly, bring hands back to resting at sides

Repeat, lifting right foot (optional)

Waterfall/Forward Fold

Standing straight

Slowly bend to touch toes

Hold for 10-30 seconds

Slowly rise back to starting position

Full body stretch

Start standing straight, arms at sides

Perform scalene stretch

Stretch arms out to the sides

Raise arms above the head (Sun salutation)

slowly reach towards the toes (Waterfall)

Slowly bring the arms back up over the head (Sun salutation)

bring arms back to resting

Hold each position for 10-30 seconds

Repeat as desired

Now What?

Now that you understand a little bit more about how Breathwork affects your body and a few simple ways to take control of your state of mind, I hope you can breathe easier and I’ll see you back at The Educator’s Corner as we explore your body, why it does what it does, and how you can help.

*This blog is not a substitute for medical advice. We recommend meeting with a qualified health care team before entering any new fitness program.

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