Take a Deep Breath (Out)


You are intrinsically wired to let go.

But first! The science...

When I was a relatively baby trainer, I was super blessed to work with patients who were coming out of a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

These clients* had COPD, emphezyma, lung transplants and other chronic conditions that - literally - made it next to impossible for them to effectively breathe. Most of these clients could breathe IN OK. But they couldn't breathe OUT, resulting in mild-to-severe hyperventilation.

Symptoms of hyperventilation include: anxiety, sleep disturbance, weakness, shortness of breath and dizziness among others caused by low levels of carbon dioxide in the body.  

Sound familiar?

I see a ton of these symptoms in my clients who DON'T have COPD. We live in a society of over breathers... and yogis are some of the worst. We INHAAAAAAALE. and exhalequicklybeforeweINHAAAAALE. because - honestly - the inhale feels good! Your heart rate goes up, your ribs expand and you get a boost of energy as your diaphragm contracts.

and contracts. and contracts. and contracts.

Ready for some anatomy?

When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and presses down to (essentially) get your internal organs out of the way so your lungs can expand. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes up into your rib cage.

Ever overworked your legs and found that they got stiff and tight? Same thing can happen to your diaphragm! If you continually contract and never completely exhale, allowing it to relax, it can get jammed into a very small range of motion, limiting your potential for breath, relaxation and effective metabolism.

If you look at the video above, you'll see that your diaphragm inserts at the middle of your thoracic spine and at the front of your ribs, so it effects thoracic spine mobility (and - by proxy - your neck and lower back!), your ability to expand and relax your front body (and therefore your backbends, yogis) and your shoulders. Breathing OUT is no small matter to your body inside and out.

Ways to manually release your diaphragm include self tissue release (Jill Miller and Kelly Starrett have some great info on this) or seeing a good massage therapist. Otherwise...it's up to the exhale.

I've been using a combination of Butyeko Breathing methods and gentle awareness practices with my clients. If you want a great place to start, THIS DOCUMENT is an amazing resource. If you just want some basic practices to play with, here you go!

1. Breathe through your nose.

During rest periods between training sets (seriously... you can do half the work and get twice the cardio during kettlebell swings if you try this between sets), when you catch yourself mouth breathing and if you just notice that you're stressed.

2. Take a longer exhale than inhale. 

Count to anywhere between 3 and 5 on your inhale, and try exhaling for 1-3 beats longer. RELAX. (Don't turn this into an eccentric contraction.) Add one beat in each direction up to 8, then take a few normal breaths and begin again.

3. Pause at the bottom of your exhale.

A meditation teacher gave me this practice ages ago and I was so excited to see the science of why. Inhale. Exhale completely. Wait. Relax any tension that arises. Wait. Then inhale through your nose.

But here's the deeper point to all this...

We are wired to let go. You brain will - regardless of where your attention is - cue your body to exhale carbon dioxide. And your heart will - if your intention is to heal - stitch up your emotional and spiritual wounds.

Both take practice to facilitate well. You can do breathing drills to practice the physical part of letting go. And you can practice gentle meditation to "catch and release" hurts and anxieties. But either way? You are designed to let go and make space.

So next time your therapist, yoga teacher, mom, spouse tells you to "Take a deep breath." (which, let's be honest, is a nicer way of saying chill the f@#$ out, Tiger.") be sure you take a deep exhale as well.


*(Sidebar: One of these was an enormous man ...we'll call him the Godfather...who walked around with lots of hundred dollar bills and I'm pretty sure was involved in organized crime. He'd drive up to his appointments with cigarette smoke billowing out of the car, which I'm pretty sure hindered his progress.)