As a former national level swimmer I understand the importance of breath. Those last ten meters when my lungs were burning and I ached for a good deep breath to get me to the wall first, it was all too clear. These days, in my work as a yoga therapist, I understand a different side of the importance of breath. I witness daily the key role breath plays in supporting healing and recovery.
The first thing I do when working with a new client is a breath assessment. Breath rate, quality, balance, placement, and capacity are a few of the factors I examine. In my experience, 100 percent of new clients breathe sub-optimally, inhibiting rather than supporting recovery. In fact, most clients are not even aware of their breathing. Nor are they aware of how easily they can positively affect their healing and recovery –by improving their breathing.
Optimal breathing, (also known as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing), stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), that part of the autonomic nervous system that works to heal, rebuild through the anabolic process, and regenerate the body. The parasympathetic nerves also stimulate the immune system, digestive, and eliminative organs such as the liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body is a self-healing mechanism. “This skill, (diaphragmatic breathing) is inborn but often lies dormant (think of how a baby breathes). Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms.”[i]
By contrast, sub-optimal breathing (chest breathing) increases stress, anxiety, muscular tension and is catabolic in nature. “Short, shallow breathing causes a cascade of negative effects in the body, and the body associates that with the fight-or-flight response,” explains Al Lee, co-author of Perfect Breathing. “It gins up the adrenaline, the cortisol, the stress chemicals.” In short, sub-optimal breathing steals health and vitality and inhibits healing and performance.
Optimal breathing is simple and effects are immediate. It can also be taught in under five minutes, though regularly practice is needed for on-going benefits. Optimal breathing can be incorporated into any rehabilitation program and the rewards go well beyond healing and recovery.
“By learning to control your breathing, you will improve nearly every aspect of your life,” says Lee. “These techniques are used by just about anybody in any discipline you can think of — fighter pilots to Olympic athletes, marksmen, special forces, you name it. They would say, ‘This is the most important thing I do.'”
Training clients to do optimal breathing can accelerate recovery time and get them back in their game with a new tool to greatly improve both their athletic performance and their life. And it’s right under their nose.
To learn more about optimal breathing, check out these great resources:
For more information on breath assessment and optimal breath training technique, contact Tianne Allan, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tianne Allan is a yoga therapist, yoga teacher and trainer in Vancouver, Canada. She is a former national level swimmer and master swim coach of two world record holders. She practices yoga, meditation, and breath work daily and still enjoys long, leisurely swims. Her breathing stats are 8-3-2-10.