Science of Breath Part 2: Breath and Movement

written by erica boland

Have you ever considered that your first earthside movement is your breath? Let’s dive deeper into the science of breath and look at the diaphragm, the cornerstone of our tools of breath, sound, and movement. Just like any other muscle, the diaphragm can be trained. In part 1 of this series we introduced the Polyvagal Theory and discussed that different stimuli elicit different vagal activation. What is so fascinating is the diaphragm is integral for all three vagal circuits. Training the diaphragm in both its respiratory and stability functions can help us live more in that 80% safety ideal. 

The diaphragm spans the lower rib cage from front to back and connects to the spine. It is the primary muscle for breath, and a major player in core stability. The vagus nerves runs right through it! When a functional breath is accomplished, the diaphragm moves down during inspiration and returns to its upward position during expiration. Intentional practice of this breath helps down-regulate our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), allowing flow towards and within the safety activations no matter what life presents to you. Breath connects the physical to the non-physical! Think creating space (breath) before response to a stimulus (a contraction in labor) through use of a deep belly breath.

While the diaphragm is the primary muscle in breath, we have access to other muscles for breath known as our accessory muscles. These muscles are located in our neck, shoulders, and upper chest and normally function in more sympathetic activation (i.e. running from a swarm of ground bees or the all-out sprint at the end of a race). These accessory muscles are not “bad” but are called “accessory muscles” for a reason. In primary breath function the accessory muscles should only be used about 20% of the time. 

It is common, but not normal, for us to breathe and move while overusing these accessory muscles. This is commonly due to chronic stress and movement patterns developed through fast-paced, high-stress lifestyles that are prevalent in our society. Through afferent (body to brain) pathways, this dysfunctional breathing pattern reinforces non-safety activations. You can deduct that the more time you spend using functional breath to create space before a response, the less you may perceive as unsafe.  This practice can allow you to remain within safety activations the majority of the time, and move through non-safety activations when the timing is more appropriate (rather than all the time).

You are likely beginning to gather how truly amazing and intricate the human body is.

As you consciously choose to train your breath for function and safety, you are simultaneously training your diaphragm for stability. Imagine your core as a can of La Croix, as the diaphragm moves down it becomes the top of that can and stability can be created throughout your core (intra-abdominal pressure) with conscious practice. This looks like bracing outward 360 degrees around your lower ribs.

The core is fundamental in every movement, from posture to a heavy lift. Posture alone has been shown to impact physical and non-physical parameters within the polyvagal activations. An erect posture communicates confidence internally and externally. The more familiar we are with our bodies, the more we cultivate safety inwardly and outwardly. Findings from the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry show:

Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress. The research is consistent with embodied cognition theories that muscular and autonomic states influence emotional responding.”

Movement is a tool in both safety and non-safety. It can provide us escape and defense in non-safety and in safety, play, working out, sex, and ideally, giving birth. A woman training for birth both mentally (breath) and physically (movement), comfortable and confident in her body, has greater access to cultivate safety wherever she chooses to birth. 

Michel Odent states we need to feel safe and unobserved during birth. The diaphragm is a beautiful facilitator in allowing us to feel safe, unobserved, and comfortably move to bring baby earthside. We will continue to evaluate the diaphragm and its connection to sound as a tool in Part 3.

BreathRain Inaya Ali