"To deal with that kind of pressure, we are taught breathing exercises in our training schedule...it's the key to absolutely everything...it helps you sleep. It is simply balanced breathing....controlling your heart rate and clearing your thoughts."
Petr Cech, Chelsea FC Goalkeeper in an interview with FHM Magazine February 2014
Being a professional opera singer, breathing was something I had to focus on in order to produce my voice and in producing my voice I found an inner calm and focus which enabled me to actually get up in front of people and perform. Often, while I was waiting to go on stage, I would be nervously shivering, wondering how on earth I was going to sing feeling like that, but as soon as I engaged by breath, support and voice, the shivering went away, and I was catapulted in to the present moment of the performance. I suppose I began to take this for granted. It was just what I did.
It wasn't until I started working with people with illness or disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress, stuttering, Dystonia and muscle spasms that I realised how most clients didn't understand the process of breathing, let alone how their body actually worked, but not only that, so few realised how simple health problems and day to day issues could be eased or even cured with a small adjustment to how they thought about breathing and then some exercises to build strength.
Even a simple ailment such as a tension headache would respond to diaphragmatic breathing as by expanding the upper body to allow efficient inhalation and exhalation, muscles and ligaments of the back, neck and shoulders would be encouraged to gently stretch allowing blood circulation to the area.
I would find myself teaching friends deep breathing exercises to practise throughout the day in order to relieve stress and stress related symptoms. I would ask them to observe what they were doing with their tongue during times of tension...were they gripping their jaw tightly, did they grind their teeth at night time? So many people couldn't answer these questions, because they lacked simple body awareness, until they went away for a week, observed their themselves and found all manner of tensions they were doing without even knowing it!
Examples of this were things like gritting their teeth whilst driving at 70mph on the motorway, or pulling their tongue back into their throat whilst talking with an authoritative figure, like a manager at work. Some people couldn't believe they were able to hold so much tension in their body, without being consciously aware. The problem is, all these small tension habits all over the body, which are usually emotionally charged, gradually build until one day we are stuck. It always amazes me when people are surprised they have slipped a disc in their back, or wake up with a frozen shoulder!
I think that's it really. It's about being aware of the physical self and the things it gets up to when we are not paying attention, because these things can seem really simple and harmless, but actually when they build up, for several hours a day, several days a week, we can see that they start to impair out natural functions.
Let's take for example gritting our teeth. Try it now. Grit your upper and lower back teeth together. Where do you feel the tension?
In the jaw itself definitely, but what about the forgotten bone behind the ears, linking to the muscles and ligaments at the base of the skull, and the throat? Apply this type of tension on a daily basis in situations of stress (and some people really are stressed all day!) and what do you get? At the very least you get a headache, but if that headache persists because your jaw tension is present, because you are suffering from mild anxiety due to small life challenges perhaps at home or at work, what happens? You most likely start to take pain killers, or go to the doctor who tries to appease you by prescribing something stronger, or sending you for tests.
Instead, what you could have done is been aware of how you are feeling and the affect this was having on your body. You could have identified areas of tension in the moment and how once triggered this set off a chain of related muscles which caused the tension to spread.
At this point, you would have been aware that your body was starting to release adrenalin into your system, a perfectly natural protective response to tension in case you needed to engage in a fight or flight situation and that breathing techniques or physical exercise at this point would be the only way to burn off this adrenalin, which later in the day, if not gotten rid of, would make you feel irritable, depressed or possibly give you a sleepless night.
Learning to be aware of ourselves and our tendencies and learning to listen to our bodies is the first step. Although having said that, as soon as you start some sort of breath training and awareness, it becomes easier to listen.
So, this week, challenge yourself to listen to your breath. We use such a small amount of our lung capacity on a daily basis, it's no wonder that as a nation we have the physical and emotional issues that we do. If you have the opportunity, observe a new born baby crying and notice how their breathing from a tiny little diaphragm catapults a huge vocal cry out of their body. If you don't have a baby to hand, observe the dog barking. The diaphragmatic action is the same.
Failing that, think of the last time you ran screaming, probably as a child being chased across the playground at school! You would have used your whole body to make that high pitched sound which could be heard down the road.
Observe your breathing when you are upset or crying, and notice how your diaphragm plays a huge part in sobbing, or if you are laughing uncontrollably, what area starts to feel tired? Yes that's it, the diaphragm!
Even when you let out a big yawn notice the breath you take as you breathe in at the start...it's impossible to do a superficial yawn! Whilst we are on the subject of yawning be aware that it is your body's natural way of releasing tension, the more you can instigate yawning in a stressful situation the more you will stay calm and alert, and it's an absolute crime that children in school are made to feel they are doing something wrong when they yawn in the classroom! How many people feel it is rude to yawn??!!! If we can possibly find any more natural processes to repress and hide, we might really be able to screw up our bodies! I jest, but am very serious!
To practise breath awareness and tension release have a go at this exercise:
1. Take a deep breath through your nose and imagine you a filling up with air all the way down to your belly.
2. Breathe out all the air by dropping your mouth open and letting your tongue hang forward and out of your mouth (like a dog when its panting). Breathe all the air out until you don't have any left, and then breathe out a bit more...leave your mouth and tongue open and relaxed and draw the air in again through your nose, repeating step 1.
3. Practise a cycle of 3 breaths like this after breakfast, lunch and dinner and before you go to sleep. Use these 3 breaths whenever you feel angry, sad, embarrassed, tense, and so on, and especially if you have to make a decision about something.
If you are not used to breathing in this way, go carefully, and never do more than three at a time until you build up strength. If you feel light headed sit down. Breathing the way nature intended is a powerful force and should not be undertaken lightly. Do the above exercise at your own risk, and who knows, something amazing might happen......