The other day when I asked my 4 year old daughter what she learned at school that day she replied, "We learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and peace. Mommy, peace is when you love each other." Later, I found myself reflecting on this definition of peace. Is it really so simple? All we have to do is love each other?
It occurred to me that before we can have peace with others we must have peace with ourselves. I feel the most peaceful when I am centered, accepting and loving toward myself. This is also when I am the most patient and understanding toward others. On the other hand, when I am feeling lost or chaotic, I tend to have less patience and empathy toward others. In these less peaceful moments I have used diaphragmatic breathing techniques to restore balance and center myself.
Diaphragmatic breathing opens energetic pathways throughout the body. As one rhythmically breathes in and out, muscles slowly unwind, releasing tension, stress, and locked up energy. This progressive melting of the body leaves a feeling of peace behind. I have taught clients diaphragmatic breathing for years and am still constantly amazed at how much pain can be eliminated from the body in minutes. All from just breathing correctly!
Diaphragmatic breathing is not just any form of breathing but a very specific one. Inhalation is initiated by the diaphragm - the muscular sheet that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Diaphragmatic breathing is a long, slow process which allows the body to maximally absorb oxygen. As the diaphragm contracts it presses down on the abdominal viscera, the abdomen expands, and oxygen fills the lungs as it rushes into the vacuum created by the expanded chest cavity.
Exhalation releases the breath slowly, ridding the body of carbon dioxide. When we exhale our bodies relax, resuming essential bodily functions and activating the parasympathetic nervous system in the process. Sometimes we hold our breath when we are scared or in pain. Once we release the breath on exhale, ahh... the relief.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the way we were meant to breathe - it is how baby's breathe. Unlike babies, adults tend to take shallow breaths much higher in their chests. Additionally, when adults feel nervous, anxious, fearful, or excited, their breath may become faster and shallower, potentially increasing physical tension and stress.
Diaphragmatic breathing increases oxygen consumption while decreasing muscle hypertension, which provides a more beneficial breath than one gained by a shallow chest breath. As a result of sedentary lifestyles, high stress levels, and in some cases, paradoxically enough, over-developed abdominal muscles, some people's diaphragms become dysfunctional. As a result, many people are unaware of how to use this vital muscle. Diaphragmatic breathing may initially be difficult, but with practice it can reinstate itself as the normal breathing pattern.
Diaphragmatic breathing can be used as a tool in moments of fear or stress. When we have a fear based response to something in our environment, our limbic system takes control of the brain, releases a mix of strong hormones, and temporarily disconnects the frontal lobes of the brain. This can make us vulnerable to irrational and erratic behavior. We can use our breath to encourage parasympathetic activation - counteracting the fight-or-fight response.
This is done by taking several slow, long, deep, cleansing breaths. Another way to reduce tension and stress is to become conscious of how our breath can be used as a tool to help us establish a sense of peace and reinstate inner balance. In stressful situations, pause by taking a deep breath: inhale through your nose from your abdomen, and then slowly exhale, releasing anxiety and stress.
Below you will find an exercise I use to teach clients diaphragmatic breathing. I have found it very helpful and hope you will as well!
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises Guided Breath
- Have the client, clothed or unclothed, lie comfortably. If unclothed, ensure the client is properly draped and warm enough.
- Place one hand on the client's chest and one on their stomach. Have the client do the same.
- Ask the client to inhale slowly through the nose or through pursed lips (this slows the intake of air).
- As the client inhales, feel their stomach expand. If the client's chest expands instead, ask her to focus on breathing with the diaphragm. You can tell her to push your hand toward the ceiling with her breath.
- Instruct the client to pause for one or two seconds prior to exhaling.
- Ask the client to exhale slowly through pursed lips to regulate the release of air.
- Allow the client to rest if necessary, then repeat.
- After several minutes of practice, ask the client if she notices any changes in her body.
- Once the client is able to maintain the diaphragmatic breathing, remove your hands. Allow the client to continue on her own without your guidance.
- You may now proceed with massage or other therapies you decide to include in the session.