The mindfulness teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ aren’t new. Among palliative counselor Stephen Levine’s books is ‘A Year To Live’, wherein he advises living each day as if it’s your last. If it’s not too late to learn to breathe for the dying (drawing upon his work with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross), then offering to the healthy a soft-belly breathing meditation is all the more valuable. This idea recognises that grief, and tension are held in a guarded, rigid stomach. A simple check is to place a hand on your belly, and the other on the lower half of your chest. Looking down, inhale deeply through your nose. If the hands move apart, you’re a stomach breather … and the studies show, probably male.
Our two choices for getting air in are rarely explained, but the implications of a tight tummy are that the diaphragm muscle can’t flatten down. This means a chest heave is required, to expand the lung cavity by lifting the ribs outwards. These muscles work against the cartilage joining the ribs to your sternum, flexing that which has become harder with aging. Voice teacher and opera singer Dominique Oyston suggests that women generally conform to societal expectations of first, a flat tummy, and second, having a petite voice that’s raised in pitch. This means pinching off your breath, instead of letting your voice boom out from deeper down (which scares off men who’re insecure about their masculinity!).
The acute pain of early stages of childbirth is countered by conscious, patterned breathing in antenatal classes. A clinical trial for those suffering the archetypal pain caused by fibromyalgia (Zautra and Davis et al) reported in Pain 2010 that slower, deeper breathing reduced pain intensity due to external stimuli, suggesting in explanation an enhanced parasympathetic nervous system tone – overcoming fight/flight of the sympathetic response.
Much like medicating is not just a matter of forcing up hormone or neurotransmitter level, better breathing is not a simple matter of getting more oxygen through to tissues. A trial of 40 sessions in a diver’s hyperbaric chamber to allow normally toxic 100% oxygen delivery as treatment for fibromyalgia used SPECT imaging to determine areas of the brain where activity was changed by the therapy. The magenta section is the Anterior Cingulate cortex (ACC), previously showing less activity than is considered normal, had become enhanced after the 8 week course. This is the area where emotions lead to regulation of heartrate and registering pain (the greatest improvement was in the Brodmann Area 24, for those into neural mapping). The authors concluded the therapy induced neuroplasticity, proposing the effect as due to suppressed glial auto-immune response reducing neuroinflammation. The oxygen overdose’s reasoning can be described as triggering anti-oxidant pathways.
Delivered by way of a more practical channel, EEGs after an 8 week Breathworks mindfulness course showed changes in the same ACC as pictured in the inset, increasing activity before administration of a painful stimuli. The ability to prepare oneself for suffering isn’t an easy skill to grasp. The course’s first task focuses meditation on a single point, observing one’s breathing.This interoception of bodily sensation is processed by spindle neurons, a type restricted to only two brain regions – the cognitive-emotional area of the insular cortex and the ACC. Lessons progress onto body scans, creating patterns associating feelings and senses, so as to effect mindful recollection for self-control (as discussed previously).
Handling pain better doesn’t make the pain go, straight away. However these regions interface to the endocrine system, and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA axis) glands release old friends adrenalin, cortisol, and immune system regulator prolactin. If big changes need to be made, it’s best to start at the top – instead of swallowing chemicals in the hope of a quicker fix.
Soften the belly to receive the breath, to receive sensation, to experience life in the body,
Soften the muscles that have held the fear for so long. (Levine, 1997)
Working the obliquus muscles by crunching won’t help back strength anyway. For more, read http://www.yogajournal.com/article/practice-section/forget-six-pack-abs/