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Rob Henert holds a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy and has nearly three decades of experience treating a wide range of patients. In this article, he discusses how changing your breathing, a seemingly simple task, can affect your entire body and quality of life.
Do you know anyone who suffers from stress, anxiety disorders, depression, low back pain, GERD, migraines, sleep disorders, or low energy levels? If so, you could suggest a simple, free exercise that is right under their nose— breathing! It’s easy, requires no equipment, and can help a person center their mind and work more efficiently, whether in an office cubicle or out playing a sport. People in different cultures around the world have worked with their breath for centuries to change both their nervous system and physiology. Nowadays, most of us take breathing for granted, but different issues such as postural habits have skewed the way we breathe, and specifically how we use our diaphragms.
Although humans appear to be more or less symmetrical, our anatomy, handedness, location of objects, and postural habits all reinforce an asymmetrical body position, and the two halves of the diaphragm are influenced by this as well. For example, the shift of our center of gravity to the right causes us to place more weight on the right hip, drop our right pelvis and shoulder, and elevate the lower left ribs. As therapists, we are trained to evaluate an individual’s posture and make the necessary corrections to align the body and move in a more neutral, symmetrical pattern. This positioning is known as the Zone of Apposition and it allows our diaphragm to function as it was intended, making it easier to breathe more deeply and efficiently without using our upper rib and neck muscles. It also helps stabilize our core as the lower ribs are positioned in a way we can more easily recruit our abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, thus allowing whole body to retain a strong position as we move.
Breathing exercises can also have a significant influence over stress. Stress is a primary or contributing cause to most illness, and a person may benefit greatly from learning to relax. Stressors are different all over the world, and will never go away completely, but it is up to each individual to manage those particular to their lives to limit damage to the body. Breathing can accelerate healing because breathing is the only function that we perform both voluntarily and involuntarily through different nervous systems and muscles. Our voluntary (parasympathetic) nervous system can change the rhythm of our breath, as well as correct our posture to allow breathing to be more automatic. This restores a more relaxed and efficient autonomic (involuntary) breathing pattern.
Imbalances in our postural alignment can contribute to over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system and under-activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. This can lead to high blood pressure, digestive dysfunction, joint pain, and musculoskeletal pain. Rather than using pharmacological interventions as we are so apt to do in the West, we should alter our posture and re-establish a rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing pattern to address the root of the problem. This might take more time, but it will result in better outcomes that last longer. It can avoid the unnecessary toxicity or pain that come with drugs or surgery.
So the next time someone you know tells you that they’re starting a drug to address stress, anxiety, depression, migraines, low energy, GERD, or low back pain, ask them if they’ve tried to change their breathing habits. Meditation and yoga both work with breathing, but may be missing underlying postural deviation that a physical therapist can address.
Below are several websites for more information, or you may contact your local Foothills Clinic.
- Postural Restoration Institute Exercises on Youtube