Most of us have probably heard that deep breathing can have wonderful benefits of stress reduction and relaxation but may not know where to start with a regular practice. Also, if you are going through cancer treatment you probably have a million appointments, a thousand things going through your head and the thought of adding something into your routine sounds overwhelming. How do you incorporate all the things that you “should” be doing? You need to eat healthy, exercise, meditate, go to your appointments, work, take care of your home, get enough sleep and don’t forget to drink 8 glasses of water! Well what if I told you that you can get 3 different benefits from simply laying down and breathing. This can be done in bed, at chemo, while watching tv, literally anywhere. With simple modifications diaphragmatic breathing or belly breath can provide benefits of relaxation/stress reduction, core strengthening and improved lymphatic circulation, which is especially important if you had lymph nodes removed or compromised during treatment.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique where you engage the entire core with each breath. That includes the deep abdominal muscles, pelvic floor and the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large domelike muscle below the lungs that contracts and lowers when we inhale. This allows both the lungs and abdominal wall to expand and the pelvic floor to lengthen. On the exhale your diaphragm relaxes and moves up, the abdominals move back toward midline and the pelvic floor lifts. This full inhale and exhale allow equal oxygen exchange in the in the lungs and can result in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces stress and can stabilize blood pressure to name a few benefits.
Whenever you are doing diaphragmatic breathing you are strengthening the diaphragm muscle, but with a simple modification you can also strengthen your transverse abdominus, which is a deep core muscle essential for stabilizing the core, spine and pelvis. Another simple modification of adding gentle pressure on the abdomen around the navel area can greatly improve lymphatic circulation. This is because located around the level of your navel is your cisterna chyli, which is one of your main lymph drainage sites in the body. With belly breathing you are using your diaphragm to create a pump and improve lymphatic circulation. This is beneficial whether you have a healthy lymphatic system or have lymphedema.
For all the variations I recommend that you lie down on a flat surface with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. You can use a blanket under your head of rolled under your knees for comfort.
1. Benefit of Relaxation/Stress Reduction: Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Slowly inhale through the nose. Begin to breathe into your belly so that it inflates like a balloon and your hand resting on the belly rises. The hand on your chest may move slightly, but the focus is on your belly. When you reach the full inhale pause for just a moment, then completely exhale for the same amount of time or even a couple seconds longer than your inhale. At the end of your exhale take another quick pause before starting the cycle again. This slightly longer exhale along with diaphragmatic breathing can activate our vagus nerve and put our bodies in a state of relaxation. Repeat this 3-5 times a few times throughout the day.
2. Benefit of Transverse Abdominis (TA) Strengthening: Start in the same position except this time place your hands so that your fingers are gently pressing on your lower abdomen just inside the bony frontal hip points. Inhale fully with the fucus of your belly rising just as you did above. When you go to exhale imaging “zipping up” from your pubic bone all the way to your sternum. Almost like you are trying to put on a tight pair of jeans. Feel a gentle contraction of your deep abdominal muscle the TA. Repeat this 5-10 times a few times throughout the day.
3. Benefit of Improved Lymphatic Circulation: Again, start in the same position, but this time with both hands placed on the belly. Begin inhaling with attention to allowing the belly to fill like a balloon and exhale the belly lowers like the balloon is deflating. Do 1-2 rounds of breath like this and then when you are ready on the inhale apply gentle pressure to the abdomen with your hands at about the level of your navel creating light resistance. As you exhale allow the hands to lower with gentle downward pressure on the belly. Repeat 3-5 times a few times throughout the day.
I hope these examples and modifications are helpful and approachable ways to start including diaphragmatic breathing into your daily routine! Sign up for my email list to get updates on monthly blog posts and helpful resources.