Breathing: The Forgotten Exercise.

I would not be doing my part as a MLD and CLT therapist if I did not urge you to breathe deeply! I call breathing “the forgotten exercise” because most people breathe unconsciously. None of us should breathe on automatic mode, but when you are facing the possible risk of lymphoedema, or have already developed lymphoedema, you can no longer afford to ignore the healing power inherent in deep, conscious breathing!

Your diaphragm is the pump for your lymphatic system, just as the heart is the pump for your circulation system.

The major problem with poor breathing is poor oxygenation. Where there is poor oxygenation, there cannot be any life affirming energy. Poor oxygenation causes listlessness and depressive moods. Furthermore, a poorly oxygenated system is a stressed system. Your body doesn’t care where the stress comes from – it always responds in the same way, by tightening your muscles, and especially your diaphragm. The end result is lower oxygen levels, poor circulation, increased muscle tension and decreased metabolic activity at the cellular level – no wonder it’s difficult to lose water and weight!

The wonderful secret is that this stress response can not only be changed both mentally and physically, it can literally be reversed! Change your mind and your body responds. When you change your attitude about your worries, or your responses to events in your life, you immediately reduce your stress. But when you change your body – by practicing sessions filled with a repertoire of deep breathing, light exercises and glorious languid stretching, you not only reduce your stress – you begin the process of healing!

Your lymphatic system needs a relaxed body to operate properly. Just like relaxation helps your digestion, it also helps your lymphatic system. Deep, slow abdominal breathing helps you take in large amounts of oxygen rich air. The oxygen moves from your lungs into your blood stream, where it binds to red blood cells and is then transported to all the cells and tissues in your body.

Of course oxygen is essential at the cellular level in the production of energy. The brain alone uses 20 percent of the oxygen in your body. But equally important is proper exhalation, because this reverses the order as the waste product of oxygen metabolism, carbon dioxide, is exhaled from your lungs. (So if you felt sluggish and forgetful lately, do not wait another minute! Start breathing properly!

When your body is injured, be it by necessary or elective surgery, or any other trauma, breathing becomes even more important. As your body heals it requires all the oxygenation possible. In addition to oxygenation, the beauty of deep breath work is its effect on the lymphatic system. As the body goes from inhale to exhale there is a change in intra-abdominal pressure. This change creates a vacuum which helps push sluggish lymph fluid up the Thoracic Duct on its return to the Venous Angle where it will connect with the venous system.

Let’s begin with an analysis of your breathing: while standing, with one hand on your belly and the other on your lungs, pay attention and take a breath: inhale and exhale. Did you suck in your gut, open up your chest and bring your shoulders up to your ears? When you exhaled, did your belly come out and did your chest deflate? Most people breathe like this. This is what is meant by the term “chest breathing”. And as any yoga teacher would tell you, this is backwards breathing!

Proper breathing is abdominal breathing. And every single person should make time to practise abdominal breathing as often as possible!

Ideally you want your ribcage to expand in 3 directions as you inhale: to the back and front, and upwards and sideways. This is where posture comes in. If your posture is not good, or you are slouching, your ribs cannot move in all these directions – and this leads to less efficient breathing, allowing less oxygen to be carried to the cells of your body.

To learn how to do proper abdominal breathing first begin by lying down. After you’ve learned the technique you can do it in any position, but in the beginning it helps to be supine, relaxed and comfortable. Place a pillow under your knees. Now put a book on your belly, right below your rib cage. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose and allow your entire belly to fill up. The book on your abdomen should actually move! But at the same time, your abdomen needs to be relaxed. Don’t force it to move, simply soften it.

Breathe in. Visualize a glass filling up from the bottom. Visualize an hour-glass filling up from the sand drizzle above. Visualize a balloon inflating slowly and gently. Now exhale. Let the air fall! Press the air out of your belly with your abdominal muscles. The book should actually move down. Begin again and breathe correctly, repeat this ten times. Pause and see how wonderful you feel!

Practice this purposeful breathing technique at every opportunity, and especially in fresh air.

Make this the start and end of your day. Do it while waiting in a queue or at red traffic lights! It takes very little time. It only takes ten breaths! You will not only feel invigorated and young; you will cope better, as well as sleep better. The exercise may be difficult at first, but this is merely an indication that you have been chest breathing on automatic mode – for much too long!

And if you have successfully completed your deep breathing session, there is an added bonus: You may legitimately chalk this up as physical “exercise”!

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