by Tyler James Wall
Repeat for the course of your life.
Sounds easy, simple…right?
Well, our bodies tell us differently. How we hold ourselves in varied positions and postures throughout the day paints a picture of our physical stories.
When we’re stressed, we often end up using accessory breathing muscles that are attached to the rib cage. These can be anything and everything from the muscles of our neck, chest, lats, low back and even our hip flexors – all working together in an effort to keep us alive and surviving. Our main breathing muscles at rest include our thoracic diaphragm, our several layers of abdominals and oblique muscles. The source of stress that influences this can be an exercise-induced stress, work stress, family stress, mental stress, existential stress – you name it. Stress isn’t the enemy but left unchecked it will hamper our ability to breathe well.
If we maintain any of these breathing patterns for too long, they will eventually stick. What happens then? We get tight. Our ability to move the head and shoulders and rotate the body becomes limited. Our ability to think differently becomes limited. We can’t be the person we intended to be.
Maybe that last statement seems like quite a leap! However, there is no separation between emotion and physical composure. Depending on what we often do, how we react to daily situations, and how well we can shift into the often elusive hemisphere of relaxation–it all has a profound influence on how we think, move, and behave.
Think about the last time you had a negative stressor in your life. Perhaps you forgot an important date or were far behind on a project with a looming deadline. You found yourself breathing heavily, and at a fast pace. Your mind landed in a feedback loop of “what if’s.” The negative thoughts stemming from the anxiety of your situation were put on repeat. You couldn’t sleep well and were easily agitated by your loved ones or seemingly unimportant or trivial things. More than likely you felt tight, stuck, or even in pain.
Then, after the smoke cleared, you had a clearer mind. The instances that were irritating you were laughable. How could you let something so simple and unimportant bother you? You still feel tight though, and a bit of that pain lingers. Despite your best efforts of stretching or massage, the discomfort persists.
Chances are, this situation sounds familiar. I know because I’ve lived it, time and time again.
So which came first – the chicken or the egg? The hyperventilation or the repetitive, negative thought patterns? It matters, but not all that much because we can control it. Our ability to focus on, play with, and control our breathing through conscious interventions and practice allows us to shift our body from fight/flight/freeze to rest and digest.
We have two branches of the autonomic (think automatic) nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). We’re always somewhere on the spectrum between the two, and it’s when we’ve shifted too far towards one direction for too long that trouble can happen.
Primitively, these things were important. When there was the danger of a predator or natural catastrophe, we had to put all systems to GO and get out of there. Then when it was time to rest after a day’s hunt and feast, we needed to shift towards our other restorative systems to recuperate and regenerate.
The human body hasn’t changed a whole lot, but our ever-changing environments have. With all the noise of modern culture continually begging for our attention, we can easily lose focus of what our bodies are telling us, and how our breathing patterns may be preventing us from realizing our ideal selves.
Enter Awareness Through Movement® lessons. Some classes focus solely on breathing and bring our attention to our existing states of respiration. Other classes focus on seemingly unrelated parts of the body then connect them through our breath. Regardless, when we take the care and time to bring our attention to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, the insights can be eye-opening. It’s only when we know what we do that we can then make a change. You simply can’t change what you don’t know.
“Our breathing reflects every emotional or physical effort and every disturbance” – Moshe Feldenkrais
A lesson may have you breathe normally as you do, then encourage you to try the opposite. Then you may change body positions and find that it’s easier to breathe here and notice how it changes the orientation of your hips and spine. Maybe you can get into a position or stance that was challenging or uncomfortable before but is much easier now since you altered your breathing pattern.
What happens when you slow down your breath? Changing the cadence or tempo of your inhale to exhales can foster new insights. So can moving the air from left to right.
Try this simple lesson:
Come to the floor lying on your back with your knees bent, feet flat and head supported if necessary. Take a few of your normal breaths and pay attention to where the air flows into your body. Does it primarily fill the upper chest? The middle of the ribs? How about the belly? Just make note and don’t try to change anything just yet.
Next, bring your hands to the outside of your lower ribs, and upon inhale, try to let your ribs fill up and out into your hands. Is this easy or challenging? Let the exhales release all the air so your ribs come down, in, and together to make room for the next breath. Repeat for three more breaths.
From here, gently place your hands under your low back and begin to notice if any air is moving into this area. If it is, great. If not, gently direct some air this way. How does that sensation feel? Is it the same on both sides? What would it be like if it was equal? Continue here for a few more breaths.
Next, place one hand on the belly and one on the chest. See if you can direct the inhale into only the belly while the chest remains as still as possible. This can be challenging, so feel free to take your time. Remember not to force anything, just do your best to guide the air. After 5 breaths there, try to reverse the focus, so only the upper chest fills and the belly remains still. One may feel much easier than the other and this is probably your common and habitual way of breathing.
These are just a few of the many areas we can bring our attention to in an effort to discover new possibilities, and to let new life enter us in seemingly lost areas.
Want to know the best part? When you get up and walk, you might feel lighter on your feet, moving with more grace and with clearer thoughts. Then that carries over to everything else you do, say and touch.
Start with that breathe. Then go from there. The changes may be life altering!
Tyler James Wall has worked as a Rehab Specialist and movement coach in Seattle and helps individuals discover and recover their bodies through exploration, experimentation and corrective movement. His background as a strength and conditioning coach and dealing with repetitive use injuries led him to the Feldenkrais Method.
In his free time, he enjoys studying the brain and movement from books and application. He is currently writing a book exploring how we can elicit behavior change through the development of self-awareness and perception. A longtime student, he is currently set to be enrolled in a Feldenkrais training. You can reach him at tylerjameswall.com.