Buddha’s Six Pack
There are two things I try to remember when it comes to working with breath.
There is this concept in the world of psychology that is essential to mental health. It is that the ability to be aware of one’s emotional state results in decreased levels of stress. Better known as emotional intelligence, this highlights the idea not that we have emotions, but that the awareness of those emotions is what helps to redirect and create an understanding of our moods and mental states. Emotions, feelings, reactions, interactions are daily occurrences. They can be both exhilarating and detrimental. But when we start to become aware of those human conditions, we begin to have more control over our lives.
The same is true for our breathing. We breathe. Everyday. All day. For our entire lives. We breathe without being aware of our breath. It is so automatic that we, thankfully, don’t have to concentrate every time we inhale and every time we exhale. Could you imagine? Multitasking would take on a whole new meaning.
And most of the time, the patterns that exist in how we breathe are set by around 10 months of age. It is something we do unconsciously. After all, it is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). But it is also one of those funny human traits that can straddle the fence between the ANS and the the somatic nervous system (SNS). We can control our breathing, to a certain extent, if we think about it. We can slow down our breathing, breathe through our nose or through our mouth, hold our breath, or breathe rapidly. We can even shift the innate pattern that has been established if we really focus. With awareness, and consistency, that change can settle in and become the new norm.
Belly breathing is the bomb. Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, it is rooted in yoga, Thai chi and meditation practices, and has been all the rage among high performing athletes for a handful of decades.In order to belly breathe, though, you’ve got to let go of your belly. The tissues of the abdomen need to relax in order to allow for the shifting of internal structures that the diaphragm demands in order to pull air into the lungs.
But hold on a gasping minute - I thought we were supposed to keep our abdomen engaged? I thought the complex formation of the Transverse Abdominis, criss crossed with the Obliques and the Rectus Abdominis were supposed to be strong and act like a big old support belt worn by those guys who do dead lifts at the gym?
I thought tight abs were cool?
Well, they are. But let us remember yin and yang. Let us reflect on balance. Let us meditate on Buddah’s six pack, if you will. The balance of all things, the light and the dark, the up and the down - these are all basic eastern principles we learn in massage school but are easily forgotten when not applied on a regular basis. The ripped beach body and the Buddha belly: Both are awesome. And both need each other.
One of the most profound techniques I have utilized when it comes to working with a client’s breath, is a proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). This may seem like a sideways approach at first glance. We have seen it used to increase elasticity in the hamstrings or improve range of motion in the shoulder. The direct impact on skeletal muscle is markedly impressive. How it works when applying it to breath is a little different.
The muscles involved in breathing are many - the Scalenes, the Intercostals, and the Quadratus Lumborum to name a few. The diaphragm is also a “skeletal muscle” that we cannot omit. But direct contact with this broad thoracic dissector is not easy. It does, however, share attachments with the Recuts Abdominus in the front, the Quadratus Lumborum in the back and the Lower Intercostals. All clinging to the last ribs like a child onto his mother’s leg. And, like a child and his mother, it is difficult to influence one without the other feeling the impact.
With your client supine, have them lift their arms above their head in a comfortable position, either hands clasped behind their head or creatively bolstered. Standing at the side of the table, gently hold their lateral and lower ribs with broad hands. This can be done directly on the skin or through a sheet depending on the client.
Ask your client to inhale deeply, pulling their breath up into their sternum, shoulders and upper chest, lifting the breath superiorly and engaging the upper muscles of inhalation. While they are doing this, you are anchoring down on the ribs you are holding, pulling in the opposite direction towards their feet. Have them hold at the top of their breath, and, when they are ready, allow their exhalation to happen naturally, similar to a deflating balloon.
This technique is the application of a PNF for the muscles of upper respiration. But it also allows for the relaxation of the QL and Rectus Abdominus and the elongation of the Intercostals and all the Serratus muscles. As we pull down against this multidimensional force, the impact can be felt throughout.
The dovetailing of contraction and relaxation, pushing and pulling, inhaling and exhaling is a direct highlight for the client into what exactly is happening when they breathe. Becoming aware of the ingrained contradictions breath holds is the starting point for creating a transformation. We can, in fact, strive for both the hard six pack of the workout guru and the soft belly of the peaceful Buddha. Help your clients remember that this is true. Breath, then, will be exactly what it needs to be.