And breathe (out)!

One of my goals for 2021 has been to get back to blogging. I think that it is fair to say that everyone has found the last year tough, and that there are still some hard yards to travel. But the outlook is so much better with the amazing work of the scientists to get to vaccines.

There has been a theme recently that seems to pop out at me from so many diverse areas that I wanted to learn more about it. And the theme is breathing! It seems to be a part of every aspect of life, from how to lose weight, to how to manage difficult situations, to getting to sleep and staying well. But is all of this an over-promise?

I became very conscious that I personally had stopped breathing much deeper than the top of my ribs because the pain of moving my ribcage was substantial. This was such a contrast from the deep belly breaths that I used to take when I was doing sport that it was striking. But since my activity levels had dropped so much, these little sips of air seemed enough, and they just made it all hurt a bit less (or so I thought!)

But reading this book – Breath from James Nestor – opened my eyes to the fact that breathing is just so important. And especially important in engaging the parasympathetic system, which we need for healing. And that actually it is the out-breath that is the most important part for engaging that.

It’s a fabulous book, with well-explained examples and analysis. Some of it is pretty mind-blowing! Who knew that we have a Nasal Cycle across each day where we use our nostrils differently and then switch?!

And if we are not already standardly nose-breathers, then the importance of grooving that habit!

But it led to me deciding to work on how I was breathing. Across many months and multiple times across each day (rather than just when I was struggling to get to sleep). So I thought that I would share the journey that helped me to find some of my favourite exercises – in case they are helpful for others.

  1. I started by training my body to let air into my rib cage and to expand the diaphragm down into the stomach space – and to do this in different positions. So I would lie face-down on the floor, with a little ‘fist pillow’ to hold my head straight but nose off the ground, and I used the sensation of my body on the floor to feel the air coming into my ribcage and also my stomach expanding and then the opposite when I breathed out. Over time I played with the order of the chest vs stomach expansion (to give the body a sense of control, and even playfulness, with the breathing).
  2. Then I started to use the breath as a signal to my body to release. So in my physio exercises, I would start with a minute of deep breathing exercises. And in each of the rehab exercises, at the point of maximum stretch, I would then look to do 3-5 deep in- and out-breaths, counting to 5 on the way in, 3 at the top, and 7 on the way out. I’d feel the breath impact on the tissues as they settled into the most difficult parts of the rehab exercises.
  3. I also discovered the Box Breathing app on the phone. Box breathing has been made famous by the military as a technique for creating calmness, focus, and readiness – even under the most extreme conditions. The technique is simply that you use the same count for breathing in, holding at the top, breathing out, and holding at the bottom. You have to focus on it and work on control. Over time you can increase the count. (The app counts out loud for you and also gamifies the amount of work that you have done on improvement).
  4. By now I had started to get a little bit hooked! So I started investigating all of the different breathing techniques from yoga. I had done a few in my weekly yoga class before my injury and with the help of YouTube, I rediscovered these and more.

There are a whole selection of videos on the site related to the book: https://www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath-vids

So 6 months on from my hilarious ambling through breath in every context, what have I actually integrated into life?

I have to admit that I have not stuck to all of those complex techniques, although I tell myself that if I do get back to yoga classes again then I would embrace them with enthusiasm.

But I have:

  • Become very focused on the benefits of breathing with movement to manage the pain in my body – and found T’ai Chi as the tool that brings me the most success here.
  • Kept the daily discipline of ‘resets’ in the day where I take 3 minutes to do some box breathing before starting something new. Whenever I go to get a drink, I use this as a cue for one of these breathing breaks.
  • Made the 5-3-7 pattern the start and consistent focus in my rehab exercises, as the way that my body can absorb the challenges of these movements and not fight back with fear and tightness.
  • Used a deep sighed out-breath and then 3 deep, slow breaths as my step into calmness when I notice the mental or physical signs of stress creeping up on me (the shoulders coming up towards the ears, the tight feeling in the pit of the stomach or an increase in my heartrate as I anticipate what might happen next)

I’m interested in whether breath management has been a part of your rehab journey, and what your experiences have been with it?

4 Replies to “And breathe (out)!”

  1. The 5-3-7 breathing is similar to speed of reps in weight training – up for a count of 5, hold for 3 then (the most important step) down slowly for 7. And that matches the stages in breathing too.

    1. Thank you for this extra perspective! There are different schools of thought on how to match weight training and breathing (as indeed running breathing etc). I personally have always preferred the approach of breathing out during the more stressful stage of the movement in terms of raising the weight and then calmly in during the controlled lowering of the weight. But in rehab (where there is usually bodyweight or very light weights involved), I do know people who prefer the breathing match as you suggest. So worth going into the session with a clear breathing plan that links with the session goal and planning.

  2. I have read many times about the importance of breathing properly. I am like you and would probably struggle to do the techniques exactly as they should be done on a regular basis.

    Since lockdown, I have been following a few people who have yoga moves on their youtube channels and, although I find some of the moves difficult, I find that I like yoga more than I thought. Also the breathing exercises are really simple and help.

    1. So glad to hear that you are enjoying yoga. I know many athletes who find the philosophy of the ‘yoga sutra’ counter to their usual hard-driving approach, so it can take some time to settle into the approaches of suspending judgement, getting in touch with the body and mind and where they are today, and working to balance the energy through the body’s chakras. I’ll be really interested to hear how it goes for you. All best wishes.

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