In chatting with our editor this week, I pitched an exciting exercise idea for today’s post. She liked it (phew, I love it when Madelyn likes my ideas), but she practically begged for a “Stressed-About-Getting-Christmas-Done” post instead. She added, “How hard would it be to come up with a ‘chill out’ post. For example, do these X moves/breaths when holiday stress threatens to Scrooge you.” That made me laugh out loud! So here you go, Madelyn — Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Breathings to you.
When you’re stressed you’ve likely heard this before…”take some deep breaths” or “just breathe.” But do you really buy into it? Although it seems too easy and simple, deep breathing techniques actually work to curb our stress. Tapping into “efficient” breathing actually has a physiological effect on your body and mind. And if we are not breathing efficiently, our body will recruit the muscles that are associated with increased stress — think shoulders in your ears, clenched jaw, etc.
But, how can we breathe more efficiently? First of all, posture is everything. We have to set up the trunk for success by properly aligning all of the components of your core. The diaphragm, our primary breathing muscle, is actually the top portion of your core. When the core is aligned and active, the diaphragm not only works more efficiently, but it reinforces its relationships with the surrounding core muscles, thus improving postural control and awareness. This heightened awareness takes us out of what’s known as the “accessory” breathing muscles. These extra breathing muscles can be good; they are designed to help us breathe better when we are in a Fight or Flight response like running from a tiger, escaping an avalanche or, for you Madelyn, braving holiday traffic on Saturday afternoon. Yet, sometimes that Fight or Flight response is unnecessary or is overactive. We need to calm that particular portion of the nervous system in order to manage stress.
Adapted from my days of respiratory physical therapy and Pilates for rehabilitation, try these three breathing exercises, each an easy and effective way to calm our nerves. They’ll not only curb your stress but they will help with two pesky byproducts of stress: neck and back pain.
While standing or sitting, lengthen your spine by inhaling and reaching the crown of the head up toward the sky. As you exhale, keep your spine long but relax your jaw. Lift your chest slightly and as you inhale again, feel the sides and backs of your ribs expand. As you exhale, feel the ribs squeeze the air out. Keep breathing deeply into the rib cage but make sure the tops of your shoulders stay out of your ears. Practice this style of breathing for one minute at least 2-3 times a day, or whenever you are stressed. This breath recruits the primary, more efficient, respiratory muscles and avoids the use of those accessory muscles, which can cause neck pain and extra stress.
Inhale slowly and fully through your nose, hold for a split second, then exhale through pursed lips (think duck face but without the pucker). This style helps to slow your respiratory rate while maintaining an open airway. It also taps into your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm us when we are anxious.
On all fours, exhale as you arch your back up to the sky like a Halloween cat. Hold this position as you continue to breathe, making sure your shoulders are out of your ears and your head is gently dangling. Inhale and reverse that position by squeezing your shoulder blades together, but maintaining the shoulders out of the ears. These movements promote better rib mobility resulting in more efficient breathing patterns.
Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga was founded in 2008 by Megan Brown, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Polestar Certified Practitioner of Pilates for Rehabilitation and Sara VanderGoot, Nationally Certified Massage Therapist and Registered Yoga Teacher (e-RYT 200, RYT 500). In their private practices as physical therapist and massage therapist respectively Megan and Sara observed that many of their clients were coming in with similar needs: relief for neck and shoulder tension and low back pain as well as a desire for more flexibility in hips and legs, stability in joints, and core strength.
Together Megan and Sara carefully crafted a curriculum of Pilates and yoga classes to address needs for clients who are pregnant, postpartum, have injuries or limitations, who are new to Pilates and yoga, and for those who are advanced students and are looking for an extra challenge.