For Those with Breathing Challenges

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If your lungs have been compromised by treatment or other conditions, here are a few ways I can work with you to improve your ability to breathe.

First, work with your diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle and the first area I check. What you want to notice is whether your belly expands when you inhale. If so, how far down does it expand? Is it easy to do that? If it doesn’t expand easily that tells you that there is tension in the diaphragm and you’ll want to work on releasing that. Take a minute or two to focus on your belly expanding downward and outward on your inhalations. Just relax on your exhalations. Take your time. Don’t rush to your next inhalation. Let your exhalations really complete themselves, allowing the next inhalation to happen when it its ready. The breath cycles will begin to elongate. It’s important to never strain with the breath. This is called belly breathing.

Notice if you have belly tension – if you are used to holding your belly in, you will probably have a challenging time with belly breathing. Let the abdominals soften and expand. If you are accustomed to engaging your core for support, that is great! But see if you can just do that on your exhales, or only as needed, and allow the belly to be soft for your inhalations.

Should you breath this way all the time? No. But you want to practice the belly breath often enough to allow you to unlock your diaphragm from any patterns of tension.

Next, work on lung capacity.
To look at how well your lungs fill up, you’ll use a three-part breath technique. It goes like this: as you inhale, expand the belly, then the middle ribs then the upper ribs, all in one big breath. As you exhale, reverse that order, releasing the upper ribs, middle ribs, then soften the belly. So you’re inhaling from the bottom up and exhaling from the top down. Perhaps you can use the image of a balloon inflating and deflating. You’re gently testing your lung capacity on the inhalation – remember not to strain – and again, let your exhalation fully complete itself. Give it all the time it wants. Note: your belly probably won’t expand as much as it did in the belly breathing technique. That is fine.

Many people have postural habits that prevent them from achieving their full lung capacity. For example, if your upper body has a tendency to round forward (stooped), you might find it challenging to move the breath into the upper lungs because the muscles around the shoulders and upper rib cage are not accustomed to holding the torso upright. The muscles have likely become short in the front and weak in the back. Thus the upper lobes of the lungs are compressed with diminished function. Here’s where practicing the postures and movements in yoga can really help. If you’re not sure what to do, just try squeezing your shoulder blades together and lifting your breastbone. Notice the width across the front of your chest.

If part of your lungs have been removed or damaged . . .
You’ll probably need to work with a yoga therapist, like me, to increase your breathing capacity. I have two main strategies for working with resected or damaged lungs. 1.) we work together to get the healthy parts of your lungs, including the back-side, operating at full efficiency. This means unlocking patterns of tension in the various breathing muscles and working toward the fullest range of expansion possible. 2.) For areas of damage, I coach you to gently explore the sensations at the edge of this area. In other words, don’t ignore it, but notice what that area of the lungs feels like when breathing. And yes, you CAN direct your breath into different areas of your lungs including one side more than the other. Once again, remember to never strain or push the breath. To re-pattern these muscles, it will need to feel comfortable and manageable.

Working with the breath is not a one-size-fits all program, but becoming familiar with your breathing patterns can be a great source of peace and grounding.

About Michelle

Michelle Stortz, C-IAYT, RYT500, MFA, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in yoga for cancer and chronic illness. She teaches in numerous medical settings throughout the Philadelphia area. Her teaching is augmented by her studies in meditation and Buddhism and her involvement with the Springboard Meditation Sangha. She leads retreats and group classes and works with individuals in private sessions.
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