Breathing is amazing. We do it approximately 20,000 times a day, mostly without thinking about it. Our main muscle of respiration, the Diaphragm, interacts with our spine, our abdominal muscles and our pelvic floor, helping us manage to avoid back pain, contribute to dynamic stability and keep control over our bladder and bowel function. But breathing is also important when it comes to our stress management, mood, pain processing and autonomic function – in fact a 2012 study by Busch showed that breathing is the decisive factor in optimising all of the above – simply by adopting a practice of Deep Slow Breathing. It’s something we have to do anyway, why not make some of your breaths count?
(thanks to Fiona Rogers of pelvicfloorexercise.com.au for sending me the above gif of quiet breathing – look at the fabulous massage the internal organs are getting and notice how the heart, which is sitting on top of the diaphragm, travels with it for each breath cycle)
So what can impair our breathing? When we’re stressed, our breathing may become more shallow, more apical and more rapid, helping to spur the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which might be necessary to either run away from or fight the tiger that’s chasing us, putting us into that sympathetic (fight or flight) frame of mind…but what if we’re constantly stressed out? Paying attention to the breath, as part of a mindfulness practice, can be a great way to steer back towards a more parasympathetic status (rest and digest), helping us with tension, anxiety, digestion, hormonal balance, as well as postive impact on back pain and bladder/bowel health. I love mentioning the research that shows that breathing and bladder control are more linked to back pain than obesity or levels of activity!
The diaphragm is an important aspect of central stability/mobility – together with the pelvic floor, the deep abdominals and the deep back muscle groups (the multifidi), how we breathe has a huge effect on our ability to move through the world, without pain and without leaking. Of course June being Pelvic Organ Prolapse awareness month, I can’t go without mentioning the importance of breathing as a key driver of managing intra abdominal pressure and keeping your pelvic organs where they’re supposed to be! If we’re constantly straining and holding our breath as we move through the world, whether that’s every time we go from sit to stand, or lift something heavy or have a bowel movement…all that downward pressure places a huge strain on both the pelvic fascia and the pelvic floor muscles, which work together to support the pelvic organs. If you’ve been to one of my courses, you will undoubtedly remember the cautionary tale of the rubber chicken who didn’t manage her intra abdominal pressures well….
Now it’s no secret I’m a bit of an anatomy nerd…but the diaphragm has so many different and important attachments and relationships – the lumbar spine, the ribs and costal cartilage, the xiphoid sternum, as well as its connections with muscles like rectus abdominus, transversus abdominus, psoas, quadratus lumborum and pubococcygeus – so it’s safe to say, if your diaphragm isn’t happy, none of those will be functioning optimally either!
Although I’m fond of quoting the American Lung Association line ‘If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters’ perhaps I will finish here with the wisdom of Maya Angelou
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into all matters breath related – the anatomy and physiology of breathing, how breathing can become altered with pregnancy, post partum, surgery and back pain, manual therapy and therapeutic exercise strategies for optimising and integrating the breath into pelvic health and global dynamic stability, then check out the new course that Jenny Burrell and I have co-created, launching next month:
I’m also delighted to be heading back to Australia (Perth, Sydney, Sunshine Coast) and New Zealand (Christchurch) and to a first time teaching experience in Singapore and Tasmania – you can find all the info at pelvicfloorexercise.com.au