Most of our breathing is automatic. So we are usually not aware when and how we restrict our breath. However, we can regain voluntary control of the breath as we release tension in muscles of breathing. We can even use the breath as a unique vehicle to responsibly meet and heal from emotional or physical pain, and trauma. Conscious breathing helps us process emotional issues. It allows us to stay present for uncomfortable memories, stay in our bodies, and not drift into avoidance when intense experiences come up.
“Once you’ve become mindful and present to the pain, imagine that you can breathe in and out of it just as you can imagine breathing in and out of your belly. Imagine the breath as loving attention–the opposite of trying to push something away.” (Joan Borysenko)
Therapeutic Breath Work and Massage
I first learned of therapeutic breath work with ReBirthing in the early 1980’s. We say, “Breathe all the way in and all the way out, slowly and continuously, without stopping.” It allows people to step back and witness their feelings, gives them “breathing room” to have greater awareness, without judgment, and to let tension go on the exhale.
I learned some of this from Marion Rosen, founder of Rosen Method. She taught that you can find pockets of tension with unconscious restriction of breath at the bottom of the rib cage, where the diaphragm attaches. Persistent, gentle massage there, with an invitation to breathe into the tense spots, will allow the release of old fears as well. You might be surprised at the relief of a full and easy breath pattern!
Restricted Breath at the Scalenes
Another place where restricted breath shows up is the anterior and middle scalenes. These attach to the first rib while the posterior scalene attaches to the second rib. When people shorten the muscles at the front of their necks from computer work, texting, whiplash or emotional reasons, these muscles become chronically contracted. They are unable to raise the first and second ribs on forced inhalation.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) and Vagus Nerve
Tight scalenes sometimes also puts pressure on nerves and arteries which run underneath them. This may contribute to numbness, tingling, and pain in the hand and wrist, an indicator of thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). Scalenes are close to muscles on either side of the neck, called SCMs.1 Tight SCM and scalenes together can put pressure on the vagus nerve, which controls and gives sensory information back to the brain about autonomic functions such as heart beat and digestion. Vagus nerve issues may include heart palpitations, rapid heart beats, dizziness, breathing difficulties, and nausea. These may be relieved by exercises that relax the scalenes and the SCMs. These exercises are called neuromuscular reeducation (NMR).2
Breathing exercise to relax scalene muscles, release pressure from the vagus nerve
When you relax these muscles, breathing is easier, and can reduce neck and shoulder pain. It can also reduce arm pain and tension, if these muscles are compressing nerves that travel down the arms. You can do this simple exercise to relax those muscles:
1. Put your fingers just above the collarbones at the base of the neck.
2. Next, breathe in. Force the air into the top of your lungs until you can feel the muscles pulling the first rib. They should push up against your fingers.
3. Hold for ten seconds.
4. Breathe out slowly, feeling the scalenes relax.
5. Repeat 3x.
If you would like more training to release tension and resume normal breathing, feel free to call me, 503-708-2911, or schedule an appointment at your convenience, online.
1 SCM stands for Sternocleidomastoid muscles (see adjacent picture). The muscles of the neck in the context of craniosacral therapy are also sometimes related to Migraine Headaches.
2 For a thorough discussion of fascial restrictions and myofascial pain that can be helped by NMR, see Paul Reller, L.Ac.
All pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia, Creative Commons License, and are used with gratitude.