Exercises for Respiratory HealthMar 23, 2023
Yoga for Respiratory Health
Breath is life and our quality of breathing determines the energy and vitality we feel. Whether you have a respiratory condition such as asthma or simply feel you grasp for breath and don’t quite feel your full breathing potential, supporting how you breathe through movement and exercise can help you thrive, body and mind.
Put most simply, breathing inhales oxygen into the body and exhales carbon dioxide out. This happens on a large scale through the lungs, but also for each and every one of the cells throughout your entire body. It is the respiratory system that provides the means for vital oxygen to enter bodies via our lungs, into the blood stream and ultimately through the whole body. The carbon dioxide excreted is the by-product of each cell’s breathing or ‘respiring’ – much like the body’s exhaust fumes.
Healthy lungs working optimally take in about ½ litre of air roughly 12-15 times each minute. They meet the cardiovascular system for oxygen delivery, with all the blood in the body passed through the lungs every minute. Although we may view the lungs as bags that fill with air, in fact they are more like porous, elastic sea sponges in texture.
The respiratory system also filters out, dust, bacteria and other microbes that might have a negative effect on our health. It has a protective mucous lining (throughout the nose, mouth, pharynx, larynx, trachea and lungs) and if sensing pollution our nervous systems are signalled to produce more shallow breaths for protection, which results in less oxygen to cells.
Supporting respiratory health and the increase of oxygenation in the lungs it brings may lead to the elimination of toxins, better sleep, recovery and immune function. Our brains demand up to 25% of the oxygen we breathe in, so concentration, focus and mental cognition can suffer with reduced breathing efficiency. Breathing through the nose rather than the mouth increases immunity by raising levels of nitric oxide that kill off invaders.
As we age, lung cells contract and take in less oxygen, so we need to maximise this capacity where we can, particularly through regular movement. The respiratory system also includes the muscles and fascia (connective tissue) that allow the action of breathing. This includes intercostal muscles between the ribs and the respiratory diaphragm, a shelf of muscle laying across the bottom of the ribcage and separating out the heart and lungs from the digestive organs, liver and kidneys. The diaphragm is responsible for about 70 per cent of breathing; when we breathe in it contracts and draws air in as it allows the lungs to expand, on the exhalation it retracts back to expel carbon dioxide.
Breathing may become affected through lack of exercise or poor upper body posture; either of which reduce strength and flexibility in this area. Long periods of time hunched on chairs or stooping when upright inhibit our ability to fully fill our lungs on the inhalation. An open front body and easily lifting chest are vital for this space and healthy muscular action around the diaphragm. Gentle exercise of any sort is also important to tone there and also loosen any mucous build-up throughout the system.
Cardiovascular exercise (such as jogging, swimming, walking uphill, cycling and dancing, where the heartbeat rises) beneficially challenges the respiratory system, so it is forced to deliver more oxygen for the increased effort in muscular tissues. With consistent exertion of at least 20 minutes regularly, over time the diaphragm and intercostal muscles become stronger and the entire respiratory system becomes more efficient. Tidal volume (the amount of air you breathe in or out in a single breath) rises and alveoli (the tiny cavities in your lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged) increase in number.
Exercise is one part of the whole picture. If it is done with breathing patterns that remain tight and shallow however, it can add to holding stress into the body rather than allowing release. For healthy breathing, the belly area needs to able to fully relax on inhale. The belly also needs to be able to contract as appropriate on the out-breath to facilitate a full and deep emptying of stale, old air in the lower lungs, and allowing parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system calm.
According to Jonathan P. Parsons, MD, at the Ohio State University Asthma Center, ‘In healthy people…even at maximum exercise intensity, we only use 70 percent of the possible lung capacity.’ Lung capacity can be used as a marker for general health (Schünemann et al. 2000) and for many this can tend to focus either on the top of the chest or just in the belly. This means less natural fluidity in the spine as we breathe, as well as reduced core stabilisation through reduced spinal support (Bradley and Esformes 2014).
Thoracic (chest) breathing – when we’re stressed or the diaphragm can’t move fully, our breath moves to the upper chest and shoulders; called secondary breathing. During the fight-or-flight response, this causes quicker, shallow breaths for quick oxygenation to the brain. Many people get stuck in this pattern, using up energy and creating tension in the neck and shoulders, with postural ‘holding’, jaw clenching and sensations shut off in these overworked areas.
Diaphragmatic breathing (fig below) – primary breathing uses the diaphragm with an easy exchange of filling and emptying the lungs, the chest expands and the diaphragm moves downwards to inhale, rising back up as the chest drops to exhale. Lying down, this can be seen as the belly rising and falling. It’s the most energy-efficient, oxygenating breath and the least stressful to the muscular system. We can feel this lying down and placing our hands at our bottom ribs to notice the movement potential there.
Upper chest breathing often leads to a degree of hyperventilation, where too much carbon dioxide is exhaled leading to blood vessel constriction and reduced blood-flow to the brain. This is part of the stress and trauma pattern of reduced motor skill, increased agitation and a lower threshold for pain.
Simple floor sequence for respiratory health
Respiratory health involves looking to slow breathing wherever possible, helping to unravel tightness around the shoulders, back, chest and abdomen through a focus on full exhalations.
The psoas muscle that joins the legs to the spine also tightens with stress and as it links into the diaphragm can also contribute to breath holding and quickening that may be seen alongside lower back issues. This set of floor exercises help to free the diaphragm, the psoas, the shoulders and the neck for our most easeful, efficient breath patterns, whilst making space for full diaphragmatic and intercostal movement. Doing this lying allows us to free these areas when they don’t need to be involved in standing us upright from gravity.
Full breathing also helps our postural abdominal support. The quadratus lumborum – a back muscle, but the deepest of the abdominal muscles – shares a fascial connection with the diaphragm and the psoas, at the lumbar vertebrae, the lower spine. When full diaphragmatic breathing does not occur, these muscles are prone to weakness and further contribute to lower back pain.
Lying spine undulation
- Lying knees bent, feet hip-width on the ground, inhale to arch your back and rise the belly, lifting the waist and moving the tailbone down towards the ground.
- With the exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as lungs empty.
- As the motion becomes free, allow the chin to move down the meet the chest as you breathe in and let it lift to the ceiling as you exhale; tracking a line up and down the back of the skull, head heavy onto the ground.
Feldenkrais 'half-bridge' roll
- From the same starting point, on an inhalation, let one knee drop out to the side, rolling onto the side of that foot, then easily exhale it back. Then move to the other leg, so the motion alternates side-to-side with the breath.
- Feeling rooted through the foot on the ground, as you become more fluid you can allow the pelvis on that side to lift, letting the belly roll with the knee dropping out. In this way, as you inhale and open the chest, a back-arch evolves, and you can lift up to open the chest, squeezing between the shoulder blades as invited with each in-breath.
- From lying, feet hip-width or wider and arms by your side, feel good contact with the base of the big toe, so that as you inhale and bring the arms up and over the shoulders, you direct the lift into the chest rather than the lower back. Open the arms as wide as the shoulders feel comfortable.
- On the exhale, lower the spine back down, vertebra by vertebra, hands coming to meet the ground in synch with the tailbone.
- Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, face and jaw soft, eventually holding the pose up for as long as you feel neither stress nor strain in the body or breath.
Standing sequence for respiratory strength
Coming to upright from the ground allows us to lift up through the front of the body, where posture can tend to be collapsed from stress or sitting habits. This set of exercises both opens the chest and involves the arms to strengthen the pectoral muscles across the top of the chest that support our breathing action. Keep shoulders softening away from the ears and breath long and smooth.
- Standing hip-width apart and holding an imaginary football in front of your chest, inhale to reach one hand back behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly. Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, then inhaling that back. Move from side-to-side, retaining focus on the moving hand.
- Opening the sides of the bottom to open the intercostal muscles between the ribs can be done in many ways lifting the arms above the head. Start taking the wrist of the left arm with the right hand and drawing over to the right to lengthen into the whole of the left side. Keep open across the chest to prioritise height and length over how far you come over. Move to the other side.
- Interlink your fingers and turn your palms up to the sky. Reach up height through the side body and with a steady gaze, inhale your heels up from the ground and exhale back down again.
- Step one foot back into a high lunge, with feet still hip-width apart and parallel. Step only back as far as your lower back feels comfortable, as you draw up your belly to support it. Open both arms out to the side, with elbows higher than your shoulders, so your arms feel help up from the belly rather than shoulder tension. Release your lower jaw and breathe fully on the exhalation (even sighing out) to stay with a strong position without stress.
Resting for breath into the back body
Coming to a fully resting position after movement allows the nervous system to come back down to safety and easy, full breath. Lying on your front - with arms and shoulders in the most comfortable position for you – allows you to feel your breath in your belly. As it cannot expand forward with the inhale, this also encourages opening into the back of the lungs and lower back as you breathe in; an area often underused in many breathing patterns. Stay as long as possible, with full and kind attention on the beginning, middle and end of each breath.
Find details on Charlotte's Teaching Yoga for Immune and Respiratory Health course with Yogacampus here.
You can order Charlotte's book, Yoga and Somatics for Immune and Respiratory Health here.