It’s been five months since I gave birth to my first baby, but it’s only recently that my exercise regimen has even begun to approach the intensity of my pre-pregnancy workouts. Fourteen months of super-gentle low-impact exercise, along with the trauma of giving birth and months now of sleep deprivation, have all left my body in the poorest shape in over a dozen years.
One of the benefits of hitting a low point in wellness, though, is it often becomes easier to see the big picture in contrast. A few days ago, I was running on the treadmill, and I noticed how much my ribs ached from the deeper breaths I was compelled to take. It felt rusty; it felt tight, like a corset wrapped around my lower ribcage. But after a few minutes, it started feeling good.
I’ve known for years that exercise is one of the guaranteed ways to make me feel better. It creates an endorphin rush, the happy-hormone. But I’ve also noticed that it’s also one of the best ways to snap me out of places of mental and emotional torture—to give me a sense of myself and my own space again. I thought, then, about the figurative and the anatomically literal translation in my body: that breath represents and creates space for self.
There are, roughly, two different ways the lungs can breathe. The first is into the chest, where the central tendon is the fixed point, the lumbars are stabilized, and the diaphragm’s crura pull down. Breathing into the chest is where we go when our sympathetic nervous system is activated—the part of us that handles stress, the fight or flight, where we become alert enough to be ready for action. Chest-breathing uses up 75% of the lung’s capacity.
The second way the lungs can breathe is into the abdomen. Here, the ribs lift free from the belly, with the crura as the fixed point, and the central tendon descends. This kind of breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system—where we rest and relax. Only 25% of the lung’s capacity is used by abdominal breaths.
Ideally, a balance can be found between the two so the lungs are fully engaged. Another way to think about these two kinds of breath and why it’s good to have range of motion for both is that the abdominal breath creates space for oneself, and the chest breath protects it. At around the location of the diaphragm is the solar plexus power center, or third chakra, of the subtle body; this energy center carries information about how we relate to the material world, how we have our power, or not. Many of our defense mechanisms, how we protect ourselves are located here—how we resist and compete. When the sympathetic nervous system activates, so does the third chakra; the diaphragm closes down as the body acts to protect its core; energy is pulled in and breath becomes shallow and sharp.
When in a more restful, parasympathetic mode, the third chakra allows energy to flow through it and above to higher chakras; its information about power is still used, but not in battle—breath is full and spacious, the aura grows larger, the core expands up and out.
Ideally, a balance can be found between the two so full lung capacity is engaged, and full range of motion is maintained—meaning that one has a constant creation of space and the consciousness of its limits. One can push and resist others, and one can disengage to simply own the space around oneself in rest. The full availability of both spaces is where full empowerment lies.
My ribs being super tight showed me that I’ve mainly been a chest-breather, stuck in fight or flight mode long enough that the abdominal breath muscles ached from disuse. My breath has been, I realized, so shallow and soft that it’s almost like I felt I had no right to the air any longer. This was where all my space had been dis-owned, and where in relation to the world all these weird self-esteem issues were suddenly appearing out of nowhere.
From the feel of it, I have a ways to go to regain the air around me, my ability to oxygenate every part of my body. But as is the case with most things, change begins with the awareness of a pattern, and flow is always closer than we think.