Healing lower back pain requires a broad approach, which includes daily exercises to relax and strengthen muscles, improving one’s posture, dealing with stress, etc. What conventional approaches often overlook is the surprising way of healing lower back pain through abdominal breathing. In yoga therapy, however, relaxed breathing is central to healing lower back pain. In this blog I explain the effect of abdominal breathing and a relaxed diaphragm on the lower back. The importance of a freely moving diaphragm for our wellbeing cannot be stressed enough.
The diaphragm is our main respiratory muscle. As a large dome-like structure it divides the upper and lower part of the trunk. When the diaphragm contracts, it descends and broadens so that air can enter the lungs. With this movement the abdomen widens and expands outward. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes up into the chest, drawing the abdomen in and slightly upwards. As it moves, the diaphragm does not only allow deeper breathing, but it also massages and has a positive impact on the abdominal organs below and the heart above.
If the diaphragm becomes rigid, due to stress, emotional problems or tightly held abdominal muscles, our breathing mechanism has to rely on the work of minor respiratory muscles. This is less efficient, requires more effort and results in shallower breathing. Not only is it a waste of energy, but it is also detrimental to the nervous system: without the free movement of the diaphragm, the resulting superficial breathing in the top of the lungs leads to anxiety and even more stress.
When the diaphragm moves freely, it enables abdominal breathing, a deep and calming way to breathe. The first session of my video guides you to find this relaxed abdominal breathing. It is very useful to master this skill as you can consciously focus on abdominal breathing to calm your mind in a stressful situation.
How can abdominal breathing be a way of healing lower back pain?
Good question! There is a physiological explanation: the diaphragm attaches along the front of the lumbar vertebrae, and its movement affects the spine. The tendons of the diaphragm share attachments with other major back muscles, among which the psoas, the deep muscle that plays a major role in back health. When chronically contracted, the diaphragm can increase the tension and tightness in the lower back muscles. By contrast, free abdominal breathing provides a constant, healthy movement for the spine, helping to keep space between the vertebrae, which is essential for back health.
This is why relaxation with relaxed abdominal breathing is an essential way of healing lower back pain. Relaxation happens to be most difficult for many people, not because it is complicated, but because we are not really “doing” something. It is about quiet concentration and it seems much easier to be constantly busy. I am guilty of this as well; it is much harder to take breaks during the day to, for example, lie on a yoga mat and relax.
You can learn about abdominal breathing with my video here or with the guided breathing relaxation below. These “golden exhalations” effortlessly lengthen the exhalation, thereby relaxing the diaphragm. Enjoy!
Breathing relaxation: golden exhalations
This breathing exercise is best done lying on your back. Choose the position that is most comfortable for you: with the legs straight, or bent and feet hip-width apart. Once you master them, you can do these releasing exhalations anywhere. They are especially good when you seriously need to let go off steam (almost literally!). Apart from excellent for stress relief, these different kinds of exhalations can also optimise the breathing mechanism as they naturally lengthen the exhalations, thereby relaxing the respiratory muscles.
There are 3 different kinds of exhalations, which you do about 5 times each with some normal breathing in between each set:
Sighing the air out, 5x
Blowing the air out gently, with a relaxed face, 5x
Hissing the air out, 5x
Make sure you breathe out to the very end of each exhalation and then breathe in lightly. Notice how the exhalations slowly and naturally increase in length. After the exercise, keep observing the breath for a few more minutes, trying to keep the mind free of thoughts a little longer.