The most relaxed breathing technique you will find
What’s all the fuss about breath these days? As the world reels from the impact of isolation and lockdowns, we’ve all looked for new ways to cope. Exercise has been limited, so have social settings and one of the things that has evolved out of Covid-19 is a plethora of breathwork courses, teachers, and techniques. When the world was exposed to an airborne virus, we all got a little more interested in lungs, and how to make sure that we use them.
One of the things I built during Covid, was an online platform to translate the conversations I used to have with patients in my clinic into workshops and videos people could work with at home. As I refined the concepts that make up Anatomy on Purpose, the underlying engine for understanding our bodies had to be breath.
I’ve done breathwork all around the world in my years as a yogi and meditator. Quiet breath, deep breath, held breath, subtle breath, breath with foreign names- you name it, these lungs have tried it out. Cathartic breathwork experiences and breathing designed to be linked to movement are things that I studied for years, but as an Osteopath, I didn’t find any technique that felt practical to offer in a clinical setting. That is, until I started to work with some singers.
It was just by chance that the first professional singer came through my office, and the work I did with her was for back pain. As we worked through the symptoms that brought her in, she noticed a change in her capacity for breath and a new depth in the tone of her voice. “Could fixing my back be helping my voice?” she asked earnestly. And a light bulb turned on in my mind.
Since that clinical experience, I’ve treated many vocalists, people whose breath is their instrument. I’ve also done vocal training myself with a teacher named Fides Krucker, mother of a technique she calls, “Emotionally Integrated Voice.” Through this work I have looked closely at the relationship between spinal health, breath, and sound- which now lives in my mind as the ingredients required to feel great in a body.
The ability to make a full spectrum of sounds is reflected in the health of our capacity to harness the machinery of our own body from low down in the pelvis, all the way up to the bones in our skull. From grunt, moan, and groan at the bottom- to scream, wail and squeak at the top. And what does a person need to access these sounds? Nothing more than a body that plays nicely with its nervous system and diaphragms.
Now, before I try turn us all into singers, I want to present the fundamental breathing technique reserved only for those ready to tap into the juicy bottom and joyful top of their own breathing machine. It is the first bit of technique that I learned in vocal training and the fastest, most efficient way to connect with your own body, in a way that asks simply, “How am I right now?”
The answer to this question comes through the practice of the technique and the breath informs the body- the opposite of what happens most of the day. What is this ancient technique you say? How can I learn the advanced art of breathing my way into knowing how I am?
The answer might surprise you.
Of all the places I’ve been and techniques I have studied, there is no breath more useful at regulating the nervous system, balancing the diaphragms, and waking up the breath machinery than the good old-fashioned yawn. It’s so simple that we forget it.
In case you’ve forgotten how to yawn, I’ll teach you how. And why it’s important.
The precursor to the yawn is called ‘Dropped Belly Breath,’ but I also like to call it ‘Eggplant Belly,” because the shape we are looking to create looks just like an eggplant that’s swollen at the bottom and smaller at the top.
By ‘unbuckling’ the space below your belly button and letting that eggplant belly plop out, you create space for the low belly to swell, the pelvic floor to soften and the diaphragm responsible for driving your breath to draw down. Sometimes people find this the opposite of how they understand breath to work. “When I breath in doesn’t my diaphragm move up?”
It doesn’t. In order to take a full breath in, your diaphragm needs to draw down towards your pelvis. This stretches out the lung tissue and makes a larger cavern inside your rib cage for air to come in.
Another key feature of yawning is that we do it through our mouths- not our noses. This is important in a world where jaw tension, neck tension and headaches run rampant, especially as we all spend more time on screens. By letting the mouth hang open, rather unintelligently and softening the jaw and the lower lip, you can feel the connection between your dropped low belly and your loose, lazy jaw.
As breath makes its way into the space you’ve created, the lungs fill from the bottom up. This softens and stretches the pelvic floor, spreads the low ribs, and ripples up through the rib cage until the breath fills you up all the way to the skinny end of that eggplant shape and hits the hood of your mouth.
If you do these steps in this order, they take you straight to yawn-land. Don’t rush. Just feel your way into the fact that these are the mechanics of how to take a full spectrum breath- from your pelvic floor and relaxed low belly, all the way up to the hood of the mouth and the space between your ears.
Once you get going, yawn sounds will come out on their own. Natural human sounds. Little squeaks and squawks and grumbles that steer you into the parts of your body that haven’t let go in a while. Oftentimes people assume that yawning only happens when we’re tired, or that people who yawn are bored or disinterested.
With a little practice, you can yawn at the end of a long day, or the start of a big one. You can yawn with your kids before watching TV or yawn as you sit in traffic. Dropping the belly, filling from the bottom up and letting the jaw, the tongue and the face move around in organic ways will start to stimulate parasympathetic neural activity- the system we often call ‘rest and digest.’
A good yawn-along in the morning with your dog or your partner or your kids will loosen up a tight body, start to make your eyes water and your nose run. If you do an A+ job you might even drool a little. These are all signs that the ‘rest and digest’ features of our body are ramping up. Parasympathetic nerves control how thick or runny the secretions in our body are, how loose or tight our muscles feel and how moist or dry our tissues are in general. A body that’s tapped into parasympathetic activity through yawning will be juicy, drippy, and soft.
This happens because the largest parasympathetic nerve in our bodies (the vagus nerve) exits our brainstem right at the very top of the neck. All that open-mouthed, eggplant belly yawning stimulates the soft tissues at the base of the neck to slide and glide, which kicks that vagus nerve into gear. Once stimulated, it goes about the magical acts of changing your body chemistry and the way you feel in general.
There’s lots out there these days about these divisions of the nervous system: The fight and flight vs. the rest and digest. The truth is, we need them both. The goal is not one or the other, it is a balanced and appropriate interplay of the two.
So, how can we live in a less elevated neural state? What can we do to feel our way into a better way of breathing and being in our bodies? As embarrassingly simple as it sounds, yawning is a great start. You can even do a little yawn recording of yourself for a few minutes and then play it back and yawn-along. Humans have mirror neurons that react to the sight and sound of other people yawning. When I hear you yawn, it makes me yawn too. When I feel your body soften, it gives me permission to relax with you.