“Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself.” – Carla Melucci Ardito
In Breathing for Pain Relief, Part 1, I shared my opinion that there has been an over-emphasis on what the breath looks like and an under-emphasis on what the breath feels like in the prescription of breath work as a tool to reduce pain. This post offers guidelines for working with the breath in a more experiential way.
Meet your breath
Before you explore shifting your breath, learn more about your breath. Understand where you are starting from. Many people have developed chest breathing patterns (hence, the emphasis on abdominal breathing in treating pain, stress, and illness), but after years of chronic pain in my upper torso, I had the opposite. It took me years of practicing breath work to find an easy breath in my chest. Try to let go of preconceived ideas about how you should or shouldn’t breathe. If I had considered abdominal movement to be the gold star of breathing, I would have unwittingly continued to breathe in a very restricted way.
When you begin to meet and observe your breath, here are some things you might pay attention to:
- Where is the movement in your torso when you inhale and when you exhale? Is it consistent from breath to breath?
- How long is your inhalation and how long is your exhalation? Are they equal, or is one longer than the other? Is the length of your breath consistent from breath to breath?
- What words would you use to describe your breath? Some sample words are short, long, shallow, deep, free, or constricted, but the words don’t need to make sense. There may be a colour or an emotion that describes your breath.
Notice your breath in different contexts. How do you breathe laying down versus standing up? How do you tend to breathe when you are in a lot of pain versus when you are feeling better? How do you breathe when you are with other people or when you are watching TV?
The more you understand about how your breath is naturally responding to things, the more empowered you will be to intentionally use your breath to influence how you respond to things.
Dance with your breath
Picture two eloquent ballroom dancers circling around the dance floor. One partner is leading, but to the untrained eye, it is virtually impossible to see anything but unison. I want you to cultivate the quality of this dancing when you work with your breath. You are leading your breath, but there is no force, there is no strain. You can feel your breath willingly follow your lead.
Here are some ways you may explore leading your breath:
- Bring the length of the inhalation and the exhalation into balance. Find a length that feels accessible and sustainable, and maintain this balance for ten or more breaths.
- Breathe with a longer exhalation. Again, find a sustainable count, and maintain the extended exhalation pattern for ten or more breaths.
- Visualize different areas of your torso moving in response to your breath. Don’t worry about whether or not they actually move – just stick with the visualization of a particular area for ten or more breaths.
After you lead your breath in a particular way, pause and notice the effect. If you are wanting to use breath work to reduce pain, pay particular attention to how relaxed you feel. When you find ways of breathing that help you feel more relaxed, actively start to weave those breath practices into your day. Less is often more, but in the face of persistent chronic pain, when it comes to breathing in ways that calm your nervous system and help you feel more relaxed, more is most often more.