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.


5 More Ways to Sleep Better

Living Yoga Pranayama Yoga

Sarah Jamieson Yoga

In the late Fall, I wrote a post called 5 Ways to Sleep Better. Shortly after writing that piece, I had some stressful things happen in my life and I started consistently having trouble sleeping. In this recent struggle with sleep, I realized I had made an oversight in my original piece. The tips I offer are great ones, but they primarily attend to the night time.

If you are consistently having trouble sleeping, you need to attend to what you are doing during the day to help or hinder sleep as well. The focus of this post is on exactly that – things you can do during the day to help you sleep well at night.

1. Be mindful of what you eat

Learn what foods help you sleep and which foods might keep you up – and avoid the foods that keep you up for at least 3 hours before bed.

If you Google “what to eat before bed” or “what not to eat before bed,” you will get lots of lists and reasons for eating certain foods and avoiding others. This information can be helpful in guiding your exploration of how food affects you, but let your own observations be more influential in the decisions you make. From personal experience, I can tell you that dark chocolate before bed sometimes keeps me up, but warm almond milk doesn’t seem to hinder my sleep. You might find the opposite – or the same.

2. Spend time outside

There are lots of reasons to get sunlight and fresh air, but one of the simplest comes down to the process by which your body regulates your sleep-wake cycle. The hormone melatonin regulates this cycle, and it is controlled by light exposure. When it is dark, your body secretes melatonin to make you sleepy; when it is light, your body doesn’t secrete melatonin so you can stay alert and awake.

Long days in the office away from natural light and evenings spent in front of a bright computer or TV screen can disrupt a pattern of melatonin production that supports sleep at night and alertness during the day. Whether it is a walk on your lunch break or a warm cup of chamomile tea on your balcony in the evening, being more in tune with the rising and setting of the sun will support sleeping when the sun has set.

3. Exercise early in the day

Similar to light exposure, exercise decreases the secretion of melatonin, so it is a great thing to do earlier in the day to wake you up, but not the best thing to do in the 3 hours before you want to go to bed.

Exercise is also known to significantly reduce the presence of stress hormones in the body, which can be a huge hindrance to sleep, so you might find that exercise – no matter when you do it – supports sleep. So, as my teacher Yogi Vishvketu says, “Don’t listen to me, listen to your body.”

4. Practice pranayama

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word used to describe the breath work we do in the practice of yoga.

In 5 Ways to Sleep Better, I recommended learning how to relax as a way to support sleep. Specifically, I suggest learning to attend to the physiological changes in the body that occur with relaxation, such as a slower heart rate and breathing rate, lower blood pressure, and a decrease in muscle tension.

One of the best ways to attend to this skill is to practice it regularly throughout the day.

I have recorded a simple guided breathing exercise to support you in regularly attending to your breath. Try practicing it a few times a day. For many people, a mindful breathing practice helps relax the body and calm the mind – both of which will support sleep. Try the practice and tell me what you find.

Sarah Jamieson Yoga – Breath Awareness (6:30)

5. Reduce stress

The other points in this article are steps towards stress reduction. Mindfulness, time outside, exercise and practicing pranayama are all things you can do to reduce the experience of stress in your body.

Sometimes we will want to change our external circumstances to support a less stressful lifestyle, but a large part of stress reduction is simply about recognizing that there are things we can do to help guide ourselves through the physiological experience of stress with more ease.

Another beautiful way to decrease stress is to regularly follow a guided relaxation, and I have recorded a simple guided relaxation to support you in relaxing your body. Our inclination is often to do these sorts of things before bed, but I encourage you to try practicing it earlier in the day.

Sarah Jamieson Yoga – Guided Relaxation (7:40)

Rest well.

Sarah Jamieson

Photo credit: Chris Yakimov