Breathing is something you probably don’t give much thought to, but just because it happens more or less automatically doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. And by ‘right’ we mean in a way that supports the health of your core abdominal muscles - and this includes your pelvic floor muscles! Because breathing isn’t just essential to keeping us alive, it can have a major impact on the health of our pelvic floor muscle function.
Breathing is impacted by many things including emotions, learned habits, posture, strength, tension and pain.
Not to mention how long you have been breathing. Yes, the older you are the longer you may have had habits that you need to relearn. Fun times ahead.
And it’s a whole other topic for another time, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention now that posture also has a huge impact on your ability to breathe and your overall health. We promise we’ll cover this in a future blog (or blogs, posture is a biggie!).
So, in the words of Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start…”
We’re going to get a little technical here, but trust us, it’s pretty cool.
Your torso is supported by a group of muscles called the core. The core is made up of the diaphragm muscle at the top, the abdominal muscles at the front and sides, the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom, and the spinal column and back muscles at the back. These muscles form a cylinder from your upper ribs right down to your pelvic floor.
When you breathe in, your ribs expand and diaphragm flattens, lowers and moves your organs down. Your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles then lengthen and expand to make room for your organs. When you breathe out, your diaphragm lifts and your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles contract and shorten, returning to their resting position.
Here's what that looks like:
You can see that each part of your core works beautifully as a team to support your spine, and pelvis so you can comfortably move your body.
If part of the team is not working correctly because of pain, weakness, tightness, scar tissue, stress, posture, bad habits — or because your breathing pattern or technique is less than ideal — pelvic floor dysfunction can occur.
So, the relationship between pelvic floor health and the ability to breathe well is really important. Coordinating your breath with your muscle control isn’t just for yoga or weight lifting, it’s essential to maintaining a healthy pelvic floor.
There are a bunch of weird (or not so weird) breathing pattern habits that many people have that can cause problems, exacerbate existing pelvic floor dysfunction and have a major impact on the health of their pelvic floor over time, including:
Individual muscle tensions and weaknesses, injuries or pain can also cause abdominal or pelvic floor issues by making us compensate with other body parts and muscles. This effectively renders whole parts of our body that should be helping us breathe somewhat ineffective. Often a person’s neck, jaw, shoulders and diaphragm are working overtime to compensate for other parts of the body that have gone on vacation!
We’re probably all compensating in one way or another, and there’s no real “right”’ way to breathe. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to improve your breathing habits to better serve your body.
Below are some basic pointers on improving your breathing, this isn’t a comprehensive list but a good place to start. We also recommend getting an assessment from a pelvic health specialist (like a physical therapy provider or gynecologist). If you’ve read the other parts in this series you’ll know we harp on this, but it’s an important point. Your specialist will be able to give you advice on good breathing techniques that will suit your specific needs and unique body.
No breath holding, no keeling over from lack of oxygen. Got it? Great!
Yeah, we know, “just relax” isn’t the best advice. We’ll cover relaxation as a whole topic of its own in a future blog post. For now, we want to point out that when it comes to breathing, effort does not equate to better outcomes. Straining and trying hard brings tension and compensation in different places. Making relaxation a priority will result in better outcomes for your pelvic floor, your happiness levels, and your life.
Tune in to your breath throughout the day. How do you breathe when you drive, watch tv or talk to your boss? How does your breath change at different times of the day? Notice how your breathing directly mirrors your thoughts and feelings. When you’re feeling stressed your breathing might be fast and shallow. This leads to a lack of oxygen and exacerbates the feelings of stress and tension in your mind and body. Deep breathing is one way to combat this shallow breathing.
Now that you’ve noticed your breathing habits, you can start to take control of your breath. Deepening, relaxing and slowing down your breath to a steady natural rhythm helps your body and mind to relax and makes everything just that little bit easier.
Every breath you take should go in and out through the nose. It’s like a little factory that refines and prepares the air coming in to be used by your body as efficiently as possible. While you’re breathing through your nose you can gently relax your tongue and feel it sitting on the top of your palette.
The air you breathe in through your nose should go all the way down in your belly. 70–80% of the inhaling should be done by the diaphragm, so that your breathing is nice and deep. You can work on breathing with your diaphragm by doing this simple exercise, often referred to as “belly breathing.” Lay on your back with one hand on your chest and one on your belly. How do you breathe? Where is the air going? Is your top hand the only hand moving? Do not force the air anywhere but invite it into your lower belly and allow that area to fill up. Strange, isn’t it? We aren’t exactly told to let our bellies out!
Your diaphragm is a muscle that needs to be trained and used. And just like working on your biceps at the gym we don’t recommend doing this all day everyday. Building body awareness by checking in and noting if only your chest is moving or if your diaphragm is doing some of the work can really help to improve your breath.
As we’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot that is connected to this point and we’ll cover postural stuff in a future post. But, we’ll just quickly say that doing some work to improve your posture can do wonders to improve your breathing and your overall health. In the meantime try checking in on your shoulders throughout the day by holding them up to your ears for the count of three and then taking a deep breath in and as you sigh out, allow all the tension to melt away and let those shoulders feel heavy and relaxed. Was this where your shoulders started? If so, awesome! If not, maybe keep checking in on them. Less tension means better breathing!
Ok, this one is a bit random but we promise, there is a method to our madness! And you know we always try to add in something fun. Your pelvic floor and diaphragm are impacted by your vocal cords. So singing, or even humming (if singing out loud is not your thing), is a great way to start to get this system firing (or trying to fire) automatically, as a team. And it can be a good way to gauge your progress. One of our team members said she could hardly talk when she was in pain and not breathing properly. But as she has started to improve she can now start to sing, or try. She has noticed that her pelvic floor struggles if she tries to sing too loudly! Pay attention to your body. Do you have trouble raising your voice? Is it hard to reach certain notes? Do you raise your shoulders when you take in a big breath to reach that end note?
It can take some time to break bad patterns and correct compensations that have developed over years. But the important thing is to keep doing the work to make positive changes and to listen to your body along the way. It will let you know if it’s happy (or not!)— trust us. Looking for more tips on how to improve your breathing with the addition of Kegel exercises? Check out this guide from Dr. Amanda Olsen, a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor therapy.
Pelvic floor basics part one— the pelvic floor what it is, what it does and why you should care
Pelvic floor basics part two— pelvic floor dysfunction
Pelvic floor basics part three— how to treat and prevent pelvic floor problems