Breathing for Pain Relief, Part 2

Pain Relief Pranayama Yoga

“Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself.” – Carla Melucci Ardito

Restorative yoga, reclined bound angle

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.

Happy Breathing.


Breathing for Pain Relief, Part 1

Pain Relief Pranayama

“The breath must be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand.” – B.K.S. Iyengar


Breath work is a foundation of the yoga practice. The Sanskrit word for breath work is pranayama, and it can be translated as working with our life energy. There are many different ways of working with the breath in yoga, and how a person chooses to work with the breath will depend on their intention.

Using breath to reduce pain

Generally, when we use breathing techniques to find relief from pain, we want to breathe in a way that helps to calm our nervous system. In other words, breathing practices that help us relax will help reduce our pain. Breath work is receiving a lot of attention as a tool to reduce pain, but unfortunately, there has been an over-emphasis on what the breath looks like and an under-emphasis on what the breath feels like.

Many pain patients are told that relaxed breathing can reduce their pain, and then, they are told to practice “abdominal breathing” – which describes a way of breathing where the abdomen appears to expand with the inhalation and soften with the exhalation. The problem with this advice is that many people have been breathing in their chest for decades, and trying to force their abdomen to move with the breath is not at all relaxing.

I have seen people trying so hard to make their abdomen move that they have visible muscular strain through their face and neck. I met a young woman who persisted in trying to make her abdomen move even though she felt like she was going to throw up every time she did.

Abdominal movement is a result of relaxation

Our lungs are in our chest, so what is happening when our abdomen moves in response to our breath? There is a large, umbrella-shaped sheet muscle – called the diaphragm – that attaches all around the lower edges of the rib cage. As our breath comes in, the volume in our chest increases, and the diaphragm contracts and presses down on the contents of the abdomen. If the abdomen is relaxed, the belly will appear to expand slightly (on its own) with the inhalation.

What if the abdomen is not relaxed? Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains in his book Full Catastrophe Living:

Suppose the muscles that form the wall of your belly (the abdomen) are tight rather than relaxed when the diaphragm is contracting. As the diaphragm pushes down on the stomach and the liver and the other organs that are in your abdomen, it will meet resistance and will not be able to descend very far. Your breathing will tend to be shallow and rather high up in the chest.

The natural movement of the abdomen in response to our breath is the result of a relaxed belly. We can’t force our abdomen to relax any more than we can force the tension in our neck to release.

Entice your breath

As well-known yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar says, “The breath must be enticed.” We cannot take the physical form of a relaxed breath, impose it on a tense body, and then expect the body to relax. To arrive at a relaxed breath, we need to first take the tense body towards a more relaxed state. Breath work is a powerful tool to help a tense body become more relaxed, but the breath practices you want to use to calm the body will meet the breath where it is at and gently begin to free it – not immediately force it to be different.

In my experience, many pain patients (me included) tend to be active problem solvers. We want to figure out what we are supposed to do, get it done, and get out of pain – as soon as possible. While I genuinely appreciate this problem solving tendency in myself and others, I think it also plays a role in getting us stuck in pain. We can easily become much more focused on breathing the “right” way than we are on noticing how we feel from moment-to-moment and day-to-day in relationship to the way we are breathing.

The breath work that will reduce pain is soft and gently expansive. It feels easy, and it breeds a sense of calm, especially on the exhale. The practice of yoga isn’t about getting things right; it is about trying things and seeing how they make you feel. If you are interested in using the breath work to reduce pain, set aside 15-20 minutes, lay down somewhere comfortable, and explore using your breath in different ways. Notice how the different things you try make you feel. When you find ways of using your breath that make you feel more relaxed and reduce your pain, you have found your practice.

If you would like some ideas and guidance around exploring your breath, check out Part 2 of this post for some suggestions.


10 Ways I Will Use Less Plastic

Ahimsa Awareness Living Yoga

Photo credit: Natesh Ramasamy,

A woman I know committed to living a year without acquiring any new plastics in 2010. Her name is Taina Uitto, and reading about her plastic-free adventures on her blog Plastic Manners had a huge impact on me; it made me realize how much plastic I used on a day-to-day basis. I have used considerably less plastic over the past 4 years because of her influence, but I have by no means been living plastic-free.

I recently went to see the premiere of a documentary film From the Waste Up: Life Without Plastic that she and her brother made about her transition to a plastic-free life. I have been re-inspired, and I am ready to commit to a further reduction of my use of plastics.

When Taina’s project began, I was primarily motivated to reduce my plastics use because of the devastating impact this non-destructible substance has on the environment and on the animals that mistake it for food. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about how plastics affect our health. Plastics contain harmful chemicals that leach into the bloodstreams and tissues of almost every one of us, including newborns. I am now motivated to protect myself and my family from plastics.

I’m also inspired by the lifestyle of the people in Taina’s film. She challenged a number of other people to live plastic-free for a year and told their story in her documentary as well. Everyone found the lifestyle change challenging in the first couple of months, but as time went on, all the challenge participants told similar stories about life slowing down and feeling simpler. The message was clear: all these convenient, disposable products that are supposed to give us more time somehow do the opposite.

Here are some health-friendly and planet-friendly choices I am going to make:

1. No plastic shopping bags or disposable coffee cups

These days I use re-usable shopping bags and travel mugs 85% of the time, but every so often I will take a bag or a disposable cup out of convenience. Moving forward, if I can’t get something without creating this waste, I will go without.

2. No Take-out Trash

I don’t buy a lot of “To Go” food, but when I do, it is usually sushi and it creates a mountain of garbage – the foam/plastic containers, the soy sauce containers, and the plastic bag it comes in. I am going to save myself the cringe moment I have in response to the amount of waste, and either eat-in or use my own containers to take out.

3. Buy bulk with my own containers

At Whole Foods, you can bring your own containers, get them weighed, and use them to buy bulk (and then they deduct the weight of the container at the checkout). I have a lot of weighed containers, and when I do a bulk shop for bulk items, I take them all in and save the plastic bags. It’s awesome when I do – it is a great conversation starter, and most of the containers already have the bulk codes on them, so I don’t have to worry about noting down numbers. But when I want a small amount of one or two things, I have been taking the plastic bags and creating the unnecessary waste. I am going to stop.

4. Slowly transition plastics out of our kitchen

We were blessed with an infestation of pantry moths a few months ago. Why blessed? Because it prompted us to buy a ridiculous number of mason jars, and transfer most of our food storage to glass containers. We still have reusable Ziploc containers and various plastic tools in our kitchen. I would like to actively seek alternatives.

5. Buy plastic-free spray bottles and dish soap dispensers

Over the last couple of years, I have largely transitioned to homemade cleaning products – both for my home and for my body. But I put these homemade products into plastic containers. It’s better for the environment because they are not single-use containers, but I’m still touching plastic every time I use them. I would like to find alternatives that are friendlier for me.

6. Collect my plastic waste for a month

I believe awareness is empowering. If I collect my plastic waste for a month, I will learn more about the kinds of plastic pollution I am producing, which will help me figure out how to use less.

7. Give packaging more consideration in my purchasing decisions

I tend to avoid the blatantly horrible packaging – like toilet paper from Costco, where each roll is individually wrapped in plastic. But, I also have organic olive oil from Costco, which is in a plastic bottle, and olive oil is readily available in glass bottles. I am not going to factor out things like price or whether something is organic or local, but I am going give plastic packaging a bigger voice.

8. Try a plastic-free toothbrush

I vividly remember reading about Taina’s first experiences with a bone and boar bristle toothbrush. It did not make me want to use one. I feel a little queasy even thinking about it now. But, my ideas about what is gross and what is not have been challenged and proven wrong many times before (see point #11 for an example). So perhaps a year from now the idea of sticking a plastic stick in my month and rubbing it against my teeth and gums will disgust me instead.

9. Learn more about the different types of plastic

Most of us are familiar with the recycling symbol – the three arrows forming a triangle. But, what do the different numbers inside the recycling symbol mean? From my initial research, #2, #4 and #5 are considered okay for limited use, but #1, #3, #6 and #7 should be avoided. I look forward to learning more so I can make better informed decisions.

10. Shop for new plastic-free habits at The Soap Dispensary

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about The Soap Dispensary, but I haven’t shopped there yet. The Vancouver store featured quite prominently in Taina’s documentary because it helps people live plastic-free with a lot more ease. I am looking forward to making a trip to the store and learning new ways that I can use less plastic.

11. Have a plastic-free period

This extra point is to promote a plastic-free lifestyle choice I made a couple years ago. I went plastic-free on all products related to menstruation, and it is one of the best lifestyle decisions I’ve ever made. I started with Natracare Products, which are organic and plastic-free disposable products. They are fantastic, but the cost pushed me to consider non-disposable options like LunaPads and the Diva Cup. I now use a combination of the three – depending where I am and what I am doing. Somehow taking plastics and toxins out of menstruation transformed the experience from something kind of gross to something natural and almost beautiful. I know it may sound super corny, but it happened.

I have a feeling that these other lifestyle choices are going to end up feeling just as good!