About breathing for relaxation and pain relief

By Olivia Johnson

We were very pleased to be able to welcome Olivia Johnson as one of our AGM speakers. Olivia has taught yoga and pregnancy yoga since 2007. A summary of Olivia’s talk is given below.

Olivia explained her background in teaching both yoga and pregnancy yoga. She said that yoga has been practised for many years and is perhaps one of the oldest forms of exercise. It features postures (asana), movement and breathing (pranayama) to promote strength, flexibility and general wellbeing. There are many different forms of yoga and associated patterns of breathing which have been adapted from the earliest forms which originated in India.

Breathing is a main component of yoga and learning how to ‘breathe well’ is one of the many benefits. However, you don’t have to do the physical postures or asana to be able to learn how to breathe well.

Olivia started by explaining the anatomy of the respiratory system and its relation to other parts of the body. She showed the position of the lungs and heart in the chest and where the digestive system, the liver and the kidneys are in the belly. The diaphragm (a large dome-shaped band of muscle) separates the two. The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle.

When you take a deep breath in, pay attention to which part of your body moves. If you feel your shoulders move, try and relax them and let the breath drop down into your belly. What you want to see is your belly rise up as you inhale and fall back as you exhale. This motion indicates that you are using your diaphragm during your breath. There are many benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. The one that we are most interested in for this group is the effect it has on the nervous system. It helps move the nervous system away from the ‘fight and flight’ response (that pumps adrenaline around the body, slows digestion and gets you ready for action) and moves the body towards the ‘rest and digest’ response (which inhibits the production of adrenaline and slows everything down). We spend so much of our time in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Just keeping up with all the demands of life means that we have to be alert and ready for action. This is beneficial for us when we are in the ‘doing’ mode but it is also extremely beneficial to learn how to step out of the ‘doing mode’ and into a calmer, more relaxed state. Learning how to relax is important so that you don’t ‘burn out’ and so that you can take greater control over your emotional and mental wellbeing. When dealing with pain or stress, notice how your body responds. The body gets tense (notice your belly and diaphragm), the shoulders get tight and the breath tends to be quite high in the body and shallow, almost as though the body is bracing against a shock. This is the response that heightens adrenaline and puts the body into ‘fight or flight’, ready for action. This state also heightens the perception of pain. Learning how to recognise these signals so that you can relax the shoulders and take a breath down into your belly will start to move you into a more restorative physiological state. This will help to lower the perception of pain in the body and your response to stress. Olivia demonstrated a breathing exercise. She started by asking everyone in the room to get comfortable, either lying on the floor with a cushion under the head or in a chair with a straight spine. She then asked everyone to become aware of their natural breathing and to notice where the breath went in the body and whether they felt it more in the belly, chest or shoulders.

Olivia then asked the group to lay their hands on their bellies and to just watch the breath as it moved down into the bowl of the pelvis and filled the body from there. The exercise was to gently allow people to release and relax their diaphragm on the inhalation so that they were able to access ’full body breathing’. Olivia mentioned that we often hold tension in our bodies out of habit and it is important to actively learn to watch our breathing and to take longer, deeper breaths. This can be particularly useful at the end of the day when it has been tense and stressful. It is possible to control your breathing patterns so that you slow down your breathing to instil a sense of calm and relaxation. This can make it much easier to drop off to sleep when you get into bed already feeling relaxed. With practice, you can learn to breathe more fully almost anywhere and at any time so that you have the power to bring yourself to a state of full relaxation even as a response to provocative and stressful situations. When you are relaxed it can reduce awareness of pain and promote a feeling of wellbeing. The body also works more efficiently and the immune system can function well.

Many thanks to Olivia for providing her presentation and practical exercises which caused a lot of interest and discussion. Olivia has also kindly provided the text for a guided relaxation session which you can read here. If you would like to learn more about Olivia’s classes, have a look at her website: oliviajohnsonyoga.co.uk.

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The Pelvic Partnership consists of volunteers who have had Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP) and wish to support other women. We aim to pass on information based on both research and the experience of other women with PGP. We are not medical professionals and cannot offer medical advice and the information we provide should not take the place of advice and guidance from your own health-care providers. Material on this site is provided for information and support purposes only.

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