On Thanksgiving Day 2016, a series of unfortunate events involving a garage door, my finger, and the pavement landed me in the local urgent care office. Most of the experience is a blur, but I do remember lying there on that gurney trying my best to stay calm by practicing a relaxation technique I learned through yoga, belly breathing.
Pretend your breathing muscles are the cast of E.R. Everybody remembers Dr. Doug Ross (AKA George Clooney AKA your diaphragm), but the supporting players also have important roles. Accessory respiratory muscles are clustered in three areas of the body and affect the nervous system in different ways.
- Clavicular breathing
Muscles involved: Pectoralis minor, upper trapezius, levator scapulae, sternocleidomastiod, scalene, and subclavicular muscles
This type of breathing almost entirely bypasses the diaphragm, is known as the panic breath, and associated with fight or flight. It only uses the superior (anatomically speaking) 5% of the lungs and is partly to blame for my inability to remain upright immediately after the autumnal accident.
- Thoracic breathing
Muscles involved: Diaphragm, the intercostals, pectoralis, and rhomboids
AKA chest breathing. You know when your yoga teacher asks you to breathe into your ribs, this is thoracic breathing. I use it in my classes to practice breath control and bring awareness to the sensations of breathing. However, it can be a stimulant and, if overused on its own, trigger the stress response, so tread lightly.
- Abdominal breathing
Muscles: Diaphragm and the transversalis
Breathing deeply into your belly stimulates the vagus nerve which sends a signal to your body that all is well. Your heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers and you start to relax.
We’ll explore the wandering wonders of the vagus nerve more in the future. For now remember to breathe like the Buddha or a sleeping baby when you need help relaxing. The bigger the belly inflates and deflates, the more peaceful you’ll be.