Healing lower back pain requires a broad approach, with daily practices to relax and strengthen muscles, attention to posture and stress reduction. What conventional approaches often overlook is the power of the breath and the importance of the diaphragm. Using the breath to heal lower back pain may sound surprising. In yoga therapy, however, relaxed breathing is central to healing lower back pain. In this blog I explain the connection between the diaphragm and the 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 the abdominal organs below and the heart above.
If the diaphragm becomes more 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 shallow breathing. Not only is it a waste of energy, but it’s also detrimental to the nervous system. After all, without the free movement of the diaphragm, we only breathe in the top part of the lungs. This shallow breathing gives rise to anxiety and even more stress.
When the diaphragm moves freely, it enables a deep and calming way to breathe. The first session of my video guides you to find this relaxed abdominal breathing. It’s very useful to master this skill as you can consciously focus on abdominal breathing to calm your mind in any 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, a freely moving diaphragm provides a constant, healthy movement for the spine, and helps to keep more space between the vertebrae, which is essential for back health.
Relaxation with attention to abdominal breathing could be such an easy way of healing lower back pain. Unfortunately, it happens to be most difficult for many people, because we are not really “doing” anything. It is about quiet concentration, much harder than being constantly busy. I am guilty of this myself, and have to make a conscious effort to take a break during the day, and lie on my yoga mat to 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. There are of course more breathing techniques, and also movements that help release the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles. To learn more, don’t hesitate to contact me or set up a free consultation call
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Breathing relaxation: golden exhalations
This breathing exercise is best done lying on your back. Choose the position that is most comfortable for you: legs straight for people with a herniated disc, or bent and feet hip-width apart for most other causes of back pain. Once you master them, you can do these releasing exhalations anywhere. They are especially good when you seriously need to let go of steam (almost literally!). Apart from excellent for stress relief, these different kinds of exhalations can also optimise the breathing mechanism and relax the respiratory muscles as they naturally lengthen the exhalations.
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. Try to keep the mind free of thoughts a little longer.