Sharing your breath with your baby
We have all felt how our breath shortens and accelerates in reaction to stress. During pregnancy, this phenomenon occurs with more frequency for a number of reasons. Just climbing a flight of stairs can leave you feeling out of breath. You might also notice that it is harder to slow your breath down once you are short of breath.
To make matters worse, breathing becomes more strenuous as it is countered by the weight of your growing baby bump. The center of the diaphragm has trouble sinking to create a full inhale, and at the same time the growing baby and uterus are both pressing upward. The other function of the diaphragm is to help widen the thoracic cavity to create space for the breath in the sides of the body which also becomes more difficult to achieve as the weight of the abdomen increases and pulls downwards.
Four areas for breath to take space
In each breath we take, the lungs have the ability to stretch in 4 directions to fill completely:
- Downwards: This is called abdominal breathing. The abdomen expands and contracts with each breath.
- Outwards (left and right): Here you see the sides of the body expand on the inhale and contract on the exhale.
- Wide (across the back): You can observe this breathing when the back expands and rounds under and between the shoulder blades on the inhale and sinks inward on the exhale.
- Upward: The sternum rises on the inhale and sinks on the exhale.
Breath, flexibility and strength
Many of us only take advantage of one or two of these spaces in our normal breathing patterns. There are many factors that come into play here and so your individual breath pattern is unique to your personal life experience. During pregnancy, the ever-growing belly challenges your normal breathing patterns because it limits the space available for you to breathe. The key to supporting a deep, full breath is the mobilization of all of the areas available for breath to take space and to practice recruiting them all.
The good news: Hormonal shifts during pregnancy allow the body to easily develop the softness to create respiratory space in the upper body. It also leads to more general flexibility in yoga movements where flexibility of the torso is necessary. This allows you to use your breath to create shape change in the upper body with more ease, which can result in more complete range of motion as you move. If you stick with a gentle yoga practice after giving birth, you can also enjoy this newly-gained flexibility in forward bends, backbends and twists.
The stability of the core plays a very important role as far as the abdomen is concerned. It is only when the back is stable and creates space that the breath can open up in the other areas of the torso. What's more is that the powerful muscles of the core not only protect your inner organs, but they also give a supporting hug of protection to your baby. The shape of the belly becomes rounder as the pull of fascial tension remains well-balanced.
Yoga exercises to deepen the breath
With the help of the following practice sequence you can help to promote softness and depth in your breath. Additionally, it will help to activate the deep core muscles of the torso:
Breathing in the upper abdomen
Take an upright seat and gently activate your pelvic floor muscles in order to stabilize the lower abdomen.
Lay your hands on the upper belly. Deepen your breath and allow for the natural expansion and contraction of your breath to take place. Intensify the abdominal contraction on the exhale.
Effect: This breathing exercise is targeted at the actions of the diaphragm and can help you to cultivate a sense of calm and bring relaxation. It also develops complete support of the abdomen because it recruits the deep core muscles.
Breathing in the side body
On a following exhale, place your hands on the sides of your ribcage. Remain stable in your torso as you continue your diaphragmatic breathing. Observe how the movement of the side body as you inhale and exhale follows the rhythm of the breath of the upper belly. On each exhale the upper belly sinks, followed by the sides.
Effect: Breathing in the side body is energizing and liberating. The diaphragm is able to increase its range of motion even further. On the inhalation, the inner obliques are activated to support the diaphragm, which the outer layer is used to support the exhalation.
Breathing in the back body
Place your hands between the shoulder blades at the top of your next inhale. Expand your mindful breathing to include this space, allowing the back to round to create space for the breath. Follow the same order for both the inhale and the exhale: upper belly, side body, back body.
Effect: This area is rarely used to its fullest capacity. Typical physical complaints such as tension in the back and neck can often be caused or worsened by the lack of mobility in this area. Accessing this area of breath during pregnancy can be particularly beneficial as abdominal space becomes increasingly limited.
Upper chest breathing
At the top of the next inhale add the fourth and final area of breath by placing your hands onto the upper chest at the sternum. Deepen your breath even further in this area. Breath in and out so that the upper body, sides, back and sternum rise and fall in the same order.
Effect: This breathing provides you with an additional sense of space and provides you with the sense of getting a truly full breath in. The deep core muscles are also activated further.
Enjoy your practice!