We paradoxically often have a hard time relaxing. Not just when sitting or lying down to palm our eyes, but in daily life as well. We get wound up about about another driver cutting us off in traffic and stress about the small and big stuff that gets thrown at us every day. This is were belly breath can help you to get to deep relaxation instantly.
Without going too much into anatomy, here some basics to help you understand why we get so easily stressed out and how to avoid that trap.
Our autonomous nervous system had two main components, the sympathetic system also known as “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic system often referred to as “rest and digest”, aka relaxation.
Flight or flight is important when we face real danger. It stops the digestive tract, widens the pupils, increases the heart rate and blood pressure, flows oxygen into the muscles and tenses them up to get ready to run or fight off an offender. We automatically start to breathe more into the chest.
Unfortunately we tend to get stuck in that sympathetic nervous system response even when danger is over or when there was no danger in the first place, just daily stressful situations. This causes digestive problems, blurry vision, tension in neck, shoulders and head, increased blood pressure, shallow chest breathing and so on.
So how can we keep calm and carry on? The key is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The main nerve responsible for this activation is the vagus nerve, which has been getting more attention from the scientific community in recent years. It communicates with the thyroid, adrenal glands, intestines, pancreas, gall bladder, heart, and brain. It’s a very long nerve, connecting the base of the brain stem with the viscera, our “gut”. In fact, some scientists refer to the gut as the “second brain” because of this connection. We say “gut feeling” for a reason! My younger daughter rightfully proclaimed as a five-year-old that her secret power source is in her belly.
The vagus nerve gets stimulated in a number of ways, one of which is the movement of the diaphragm down into the abdominal cavity on a deep abdominal inhale. When you do this deep belly breath, it will automatically expand outwards and contracts back on the exhale, when the diaphragm moves back up into the ribcage. You can imagine the diaphragm like a dome tent where there is no breath after the exhale. It’s attached to the lower six ribs. On a deep inhale, the diaphragm tent flips upside down, creating a bowl shape. And therefore creating a big space for the lungs to expand into the flexible rib cage.
If your stomach and belly are tight from holding stress and tension, or maybe from overexercising the abs, having them always sucked in (as we were taught as kids, especially girls), your diaphragm has no space to go and you will automatically breathe more shallowly into the chest. And with that activating the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system. It’s a devils circle.
The following Yoga Tune Up® ball sequence will massage your belly, the internal organs, activate the vagus nerve and teach you belly breath. It will also remove any tension you might carry in your abdomen. You will need either a Yoga Tune Up® Coregeous ball, or a soft and grippy exercise ball that is not inflated too much.
1. Lie down on your mat or floor. Place the ball underneath your navel and gently lower yourself down. Check how the pressure of the ball feels. If it hurts or feels very uncomfortable, do this sequence at the wall. If on the floor, either support yourself on your forearms in a sphinx like yoga position, or come all the way down and let your forehead rest on the floor.
2. After a few initial breaths, do five contract and relax breaths. To do so, inhale deeply into your belly only, so that your lower body lifts off the ball. Hold this for a few seconds, then exhale sharply, letting the ball sink deeper in to your abdomen. If possible, create a small break between the bottom of your exhale and the next deep abdominal inhale. You might notice, that each exhale relaxes your abdomen more, letting you sink deeper into the ball after each breath.
3. Move the ball to another spot on your abdomen and repeat the five contract & relax breaths there. You might notice more tension in the stomach area or more in the lower abdomen, the digestive tract. Spend time where you feel the most tension.
3. Then start rolling on the ball from top to bottom using a push/pull motion in your hands and feet, stripping along the rectus abdominus (“six pack”) while continuing the deep abdominal breath. This big muscle runs parallel to the spine. Do some contract & relax breaths on any tight spot you can still find.
4. Change the direction now, going side to side, cross fibering (going against the grain) of the rectus abdominus. The transverse abdominals go the other way, they run deep below the six pack muscles in a 90 degree angle. And the obliques are oriented in a 45 degree angle for our full range of motion. Do about 5-10 rounds in each plane of the belly, giving any tense areas more attention.
5. The last technique is the most intense, yet it feels amazing. It’s a pin, spin & mobilize movement. Move your ball back into the center of your abdomen or the area where you felt the most tension. Press your body weight on to the ball, then walk your hands and feet to the right side to a roughly 45 degree angle to the mat. This spinning action will wind up your skin, fascia and muscles, creating heat and deep massage of the internal organs. If you want more, press yourself up on your forearms or hands, then lift one arm up toward the ceiling for a breath or two. Lower and and switch arms. Spin back to center and go the other way. Repeat on any other areas of your belly if needed.
Roll off the ball and come to a seated or standing position and notice the difference in your breath and your relaxation level. If time permits, sit down and palm your eyes for ten minutes or more. Use your (mental) foundation object or any positive thoughts, a mantra, a memory, word or image that gets you into a deep mental relaxation. You might notice more visual clarity and a calmer state of mind after this self massage sequence. Even when you have no time to palm your eyes afterwards.
Remember this feeling to bring you back into this state of calm quickly when stressed. Find a mental foundation object (memory, word, image, mantra, smell, sound etc) for a faster way to calm yourself down. Being able to easily move back into relaxation after the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) was triggered is called vagal flexibility. But that is a whole new post!