Helen Phelan believes everyone deserves to feel good in their body. As a physical and emotional fitness coach, she’s anti-diet culture and instead encourages body awareness and mindfulness to help people get back in touch with themselves. Below she explores why breathing is so important and how to foster a mindful movement practice in your daily life.
“The difference between mindful movement and regular exercise is as simple as drawing attention to the breath. Breath itself is a powerful way to increase core function and improve spinal mobility –- but most of us, because of our postural habits and the perma-stress state we live in (thanks 2020), take really shallow breaths or even hold it, not breathing altogether nearly as well as we have the potential to.
“Properly executed three dimensional breathing involves equally directing your inhale into the low belly, the sides of the ribs, and into the back body, and then using your exhale to wrap or knit the rib cage back together and find a gentle core engagement. It’s helpful to visualize your abdominal canister as a balloon filling up or an umbrella opening on the inhale when trying this. Feeling airflow in all directions helps you get expansion through the tight, restricted areas of the back.
Feeling airflow in all directions helps you get expansion through the tight, restricted areas of the back.
“Most often I see fitness instructors, myself included in the past, cueing belly breathing to help people find that abdominal connection. The problem is that when we ignore the lateral and posterior directions of the rib cage, we can create excess tension in the back which manifests as pain, and pressure down on the pelvic floor which makes it difficult to build core strength, and can lead to problems healing ab separation or even painful sex and incontinence.
“The most interesting benefit of deep breathing exercises, to me, however, it’s the positive impact it can have on our nervous system. We all already know exercise gives us endorphins and endorphins make you happy! That mood boosting power alone is reason enough for me to stay committed to regular movement. Even more than just increased mood, though, retraining your breath through intentional, deep breathing, helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
“Inhaling to reset a movement and exhaling on exertion, like we do in a pilates practice, helps integrate that nervous system response to the muscular, fascial, and skeletal health benefits of fitness. However, often when we’re strained and stressed, we take faster, shorter breaths, that involve only the “accessory” breathing muscles, like your scalene and sternocleidomastoid in the neck. Coupled with our addiction to our screens and being constantly productive at work, our posture takes a big hit, which only reinforces this breathing pattern, and the diaphragm, core, and vagus nerve don’t get any play – making this a vicious cycle in the sympathetic nervous system state, commonly understood as fight or flight.
“This means that staying aware of your breath, while intentionally putting stress on your body through exercise, not only makes you happier, but makes you more resilient to emotional stressors over time, because deep breathing becomes habitual. As a pilates instructor, I’m obviously biased towards viewing pilates as being the preeminent modality to build strength and practice mindfulness, because the slow pace invites you to stay present and it’s inherently useful at building body and interoceptive awareness. It’s true that super high intensity workouts can increase cortisol hormones in the body, but it doesn’t mean you can’t ever do high intensity workouts, or you have to quit the movement practice that sparks joy for you.
“You can practice mindfulness in any workout modality as long as you listen to your body. Listening to your body can involve getting as detailed as syncing your workouts to you where you are in your menstrual cycle or fully meditating before each class, but it doesn’t have to. If pilates or yoga just aren’t your thing you can still reap the benefits of mindful movement by paying attention to what your body needs in the moment. Some days that could look like really pushing yourself through marathon training, and other days it can be as easy as getting up and stretching a few times during the day so that your work posture doesn’t start to cause any pain problems. As long as you pay attention to each breath as you move, and how each muscle is moving and working together with the next, even if you forget at moments or your mind wanders- you’re getting the meditative and restorative benefits.”