Breathing is with us every moment of our lives, and is often something we take for granted. Our breath is both a detoxification and a nourishing process. When it falls into dysfunctional patterns, it can be an unnoticed cause of disease, such as fatigue, anxiety, mental health issues, and insomnia to name a few. Today I want to teach you a simple test that yoga teachers use to evaluate your breath.
Begin by placing one hand over your solar plexus and another over the center of your heart. Sit up straight, close your eyes, and breathe without attempting to change anything. Just observe for a moment. If the bottom hand moves when you breath, your diaphragm muslce is making that happen. If the top hand is moving, the muscles of your ribs and upper body are responsible for that motion, not your diaphragm. By paying attention for a couple minutes, you can easily tell which muscles are working as you breathe.
When we consider that our primary relaxation and stress nervous systems are hard wired to these two different muscle groups, our test begins to take on meaning. Our test tells us if we are stimulating the sympathetic stress response or the parasympathetic rest response when we breathe. When you breathe with your chest muscles, you are telling your body, “hey, I’m using these extra breathing muscles that are used only when I need maximum air flow.” Your body knows that this means you are in a situation where you need extra oxygen – aka fight or flight situations. When you use your diaphragm to breathe, you are stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated during rest and digest situations.
As you sit there, with your hands over your heart and belly, eyes closed. Where are the bears that are ready to eat you? If the hand over your chest is moving in any significant way while you breathe, then you are telling your nervous system there are lions and tigers around! Without knowing it, you are stimulating your stress response with every single breath. Thus, our unconscious breath patterns can be a major source of dysfunction, constantly telling our body to prepare for impending doom. It takes a lot of energy to hold that readiness. When we are busy preparing for stress, we are also diverting resources from other important physiological activities.
Our test tells us if we need to retrain our breath pattern. By training ourselves to breathe diaphragmatically instead of with our chest muscles, we change the signals we are sending to our nervous system. We can relax more deeply and allow our body to spend more time replenishing our energy reserves instead of amping up for stressful fights that simply are not present.
To recap, if the hand on your chest moves in any significant way while you are sitting calmly in a restful environment, then you have a dysfunctional breathing pattern that is worth fixing.