For many people, muscle pain and/or tension is simply a part of life. It can arise for many reasons including sitting for long hours, a past or present injury, poor posture or unwanted stress.
Breath can have a profound effect on our minds and bodies, and while breathing is an essential element of life, it is something which is often overlooked as a tool for pain management. The practice of breathing is at the heart of yoga. Practicing breathwork on its own or synchronizing it with yoga postures is what allows people to achieve the mind-body connection that yogi’s strive for. Conscious breathing calms the mind and relaxes our bodies. When it comes to relieving pain or tension in the body, the practice of pranayama can also be a powerful healing tool. (Learn about The Practice of Pranayama.)
The Importance of Breath
The importance of breath cannot be understated. In yoga, prana is considered our life force, flowing into our bodies as we breathe in and filling us with energy. Tension and stress begin to simply melt away as our minds and bodies let go and relax. A few minutes of deep, conscious breathing can have a powerful and immediate effect. When we take a deep breath, many simultaneous things happen in our bodies. Our blood becomes oxygenated, and that oxygen-rich blood is carried throughout our bodies and to our muscles. Our minds let go of stress, our muscles release tension, and we are left with a sense of calm and a feeling of deep relaxation. (Read more about The Freedom in Letting Go.)
When it comes to pain reduction, the practice of breathwork does several important things:
While stress is actually a positive response when triggered in certain situations, it can become debilitating when your body is in constant fight or flight mode. Stress can either lead to or be the result of muscle pain. When we experience pain, it sets off a stress reaction, which can actually amplify the way our minds perceive the pain. Breath can help to quiet and control our fight or flight response and also change the way our minds and bodies perceive pain. Alternately, stress can lead to pain and tension. Constant stress puts a lot of pressure on our bodies, causing us to tense up and often take quick, shallow breaths (which reduces oxygen flow to our muscles). The result is often tightness in muscle groups throughout the body. Addressing stress, whether it is causing pain, or the result of pain, is an important part of the healing process. (Read more about Unlocking the Stress in Your Body.)
Promotes Good Sleep
Many people who are in chronic pain struggle to sleep through the night, which starts a vicious cycle of pain, stress and sleeplessness. The body needs to rest in order to heal, and practicing pranayama at night can prepare the mind and the body for a deep, restful sleep.
Creates Ultimate Healing Environment
If you are experiencing pain or tension, the affected muscles are inflamed. To get rid of that inflammation, you want to create an environment in which those muscles can relax and heal. Practicing deep breathing, with or without yoga postures that work the specific muscle groups that are causing pain, will help to bring oxygen to those muscles and create the ultimate healing environment.
A Simple Deep Breathing Exercise
Simple deep breathing is something which can be done on your own and at various times throughout the day based on your pain or stress levels. However, there is more to deep breathing than simply taking a long inhale and exhale; it is a technique that takes some practice. First, get yourself in a comfortable position (laying on your back, in a seated meditation or, if you’re on the go, try to sit in a comfortable, upright position). Place one or both hands on your stomach and take a deep “belly breath,” breathing deeply into your abdomen, rather than shallowly into your chest. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with a pause at the top. You can start with a three to five second inhale, a few seconds pause at the top, and a three to five second exhale, eventually working to extend your exhale until it is twice the length of your inhale. As you are breathing, try to keep your mind calm and relaxed. People whose minds wander often benefit from repeating a mantra to use in conjunction with the breath.
Pairing Breath With Restorative Yoga
Deep breathing can also be paired with healing, restorative yoga poses that help to relax and stretch your inflamed muscles. To find the right restorative postures for your tension or pain, speak to a qualified yoga instructor. Once you learn the correct poses, you can practice at home using your breathwork in conjunction with these poses to heal your body.