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'Every Breath You Take'

Breath is the essence of life. Breath not only nourishes our bodies through the constant supply of oxygen but also nourishes the soul.The word “breath” itself stands for “spirit,” which is the one thing that distinguishes us from all other beings.

Our emotions and state of mind can have a profound effect on our breathing and, for that matter, vice versa. The importance of breath is not only pervasive from the perspective of life sciences and general well- being but has been known for centuries in the context of various movement disciples such as yoga, tai chi and pilates. In these disciplines the conscious use of breath is specifically taught and meant to create a deeper awareness of the mind, body and soul connection.

Breathing is something that happens quite naturally, unconsciously. Without ever having to think about it we manage to breathe 11,000 liters of air a day. The subconscious breathing occurs in the centers of the brainstem. For example, in aerobic exercise, the level of carbon dioxide in the blood increases due to the cellular respiration produced in the muscles. The brain signals tell the body that it needs more oxygen. At rest, the level drops and breathing naturally slows.

The conscious motor control of functional and specific breathing is a learned discipline. From a sports/athletics perspective the emphasis on VO2 max— maximal oxygen consumption—and VO2 intake—volume of oxygen intake—is widely known and is intently monitored in cycling.

Swimmers are trained to expand their VO2 max by practicing breathing techniques to improve their performance over time. This discipline happens first consciously and is practiced many times over until the breath becomes a subconscious act.

Good posture is also very much influenced by breath and is the key to providing stability in both static and dynamic movements. Here is a simple breathing exercise that can help to build awareness to how the inhalations and exhalation help to support us as we move our spines.

What happens when we inhale?

The rib cage opens out and up and gently expands. Since breath is responsible for movement, we generally use the inhale phase to extend the spine. Try to softly breathe through your nose. Put your hands on the sides of the rib cage and feel how the ribs expand into the hands. This is one of the most neglected areas of breath and hinders us from full oxygenation. We tend to focus too much on the front of the ribs instead of the sides and back. ‘

'We manage to breath about 11,000 litres of air a day’

As the ribs expand up and out, feel the shoulder blades gently gliding in and down and the front of the collarbone open. Your posture should have greatly improved just by the power of this conscious inhalation. Do this a few more times and until it becomes more natural and not forced. Creating movement without tension is harder than one thinks.

What happens when we exhale?

Exhale through the mouth with a slight hiss between the teeth and tongue—this will help to consciously encourage a deeper abdominal connection. The exhale phase of breathing is typically used on a “flexion” or exertion part of an exercise since it follows the natural path of the rib cage by coming in and down toward the belly and by also promoting a deeper engagement of the abdominals.

Exhale again and try to feel a gentle lift from your lower abdominals, without changing the shape of your spine. It’s a gentle bracing sensation, which activates our deepest abdominal muscles that are responsible for stabilizing our lumbar spine and pelvis. It produces an imaginary corset- type feeling around the lower back.

Since movement is very much influenced by breath, when a particular exercise is producing more exertion, the exhale is likely more pronounced and works to promote stability at a deeper level. When less effort is needed, the goal is to just promote an awareness of a good breath pattern, as many individuals tend to hold their breath and create tension during exercise without even being aware of it. Effective breathing is very much the essence of good movement.

As a movement professional I like to promote using more of the primary muscles when breathing and to avoid the activation of accessory muscles. Percentage-wise, think 80 percent of primary muscles such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominals, intercostals and obliques and no more than 20 percent of accessory muscles such as the upper trapezius, Latissimus Dorsi, levator scapulae and the muscles around the neck. Mostly, feel how the upper shoulders and neck respond when the accessory muscles are overworked.

Remember that by nature we were designed to breathe as effortlessly and effectively as possible with just the right amount of force. A full, natural breath allows for optimal oxygenation and promotes good energy at work and play.

Breathing can act as a tranquilizer to calm the nervous system or it can stimulate it with the aim to increase energy and alertness. Practicing regular and mindful breathing can help not only with stress- related problems but can significantly increase the capacity and potential of the way we exercise and move. That’s what we call Smart Movement®.

Monica Hoekstra

Society Magazine – November 2013

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