We received the following question recently:
“Do you have any articles online on the importance of breathing/softening whilst stretching?”
ST Founder Kit Laughlin writes extensively about the importance of breathing in the context of stretching in his books. For those of you who have not read these, here are some key excerpts.
At the end of this article, find two updates from Kit, dated 2 March 2018 and 7 February 2023.
Overcome Neck & Back Pain, 4th edition
(first edition published 1995)
How to breathe (page 35)
A final, crucial point concerns breathing during the stretching process. Contracting the muscles as an aid to stretching is hard work and everyone naturally holds their breath during contractions. Your breathing rate will increase following this phase. For this reason, the direction ‘to take a deep breath in before restretching’ is doubly significant. Not only does it signal to the body that you are about to stretch further, but breathing deeply will help your breathing and pulse rates to return to normal much more quickly.
Why concentrate on breathing?
There is another, deeper reason for concentrating your attention on that most common of functions—breathing. Deliberately changing your breathing patterns during the different phases of the stretching process helps the body and the mind learn the essential relaxation aspect—not as a concept, but as an experience. Electromyograph studies have shown that tension increases slightly in all the muscles in the body each time you breathe in, and reduces slightly each time you breathe out. By focusing your attention on the sensations of a breath out each time you stretch, you will enhance this natural physiological action. You cannot force muscles to relax and you cannot force them to stretch. You can, however, teach them how to behave more as you wish, and the C–R approach combined with a focus on breathing is the best I know for this. Accordingly, before you begin the final relaxing, stretching phase of any exercise, you should take a deep breath in and make the stretching effort as you breathe out. In time, becoming conscious of breathing in and out provides a focus for more advanced relaxation techniques, covered in Chapter 10.
There’s more: attending to the myriad sensations of breathing, together with the sensations coming from the body, is the most direct way to expand awareness. There are many explanations for this, but for now the knowledge that opening of awareness inevitably occurs in this process may help motivate you to attend more closely to these important aspects of your practice.
The final point at this stage is to note that breathing in particular ways can help the form of a pose too. For example, breathing in will help you straighten your back, and the directions for some exercises will ask you to ‘lift the chest’. Breathing in at this time makes this direction easier to follow and helps one to become aware of the shape and position of the body. On other occasions, the directions may ask you to breathe out as you get into the position. Usually, this will be to empty the lungs momentarily to facilitate bending forward or twisting. Please pay close attention to these instructions.
In the context of learning how to relax (pages 214–216)
I want to teach you a quick way of learning how to relax. Do not be put off by the term ‘quick’. The method combines elements of old and new techniques and is more effective than any single approach I have yet come across. It is now accepted that one’s mental state can be altered by changing one’s physical state, and the converse is also true (see Achterberg, 1985, and others in the Further Reading list on page 255). To this point in the book, we have dealt with the physical almost exclusively, but it is now time to consider the mental–physical nexus. In my experience, nothing will help you to heal more quickly than learning how to relax—this chapter is as important as the others. I must say though, as an aside, the suggestion that learning how to relax will be directly useful is often met with scepticism, especially by men!
Stress is a much-used and abused term in the languages of medicine and that activity known as ‘human resource management’. Originally an engineering term, stress was popularised in medicine by the pioneer of this research, Dr Hans Selye. Selye conceived of stress as those aspects of the environment that provoke a response in the organism. He divided stress into eustress, or good stress, and distress, which includes the familiar meaning. The originality of Selye’s research lies mainly in his uncovering the physical processes that mediate these stresses—the adrenal glands and their associated hormones—and his demonstration that the two types of stress (perceived so differently by the individual) have remarkably similar physiological effects on the body (Selye, 1978).
The reactions to stress have been labelled the ‘fight or flight’ response. They are characterised by physical and psychological changes, such as increased respiration and pulse rates, increased blood pressure, increased sympathetic nervous system activity, and increased feelings of ‘pressure’. Physiologists assume that these responses prepare the organism (for these responses are not limited to humans) for fighting or evading danger in the environment. Further, they assume that modern humans are the result of past evolutionary forces, and hence are very likely to be the offspring of organisms who were successful in coping with these kinds of pressures.
However, these responses may well be inappropriate in the modern office and urban environments. The modern changes to what comprises our normal environment (evolutionarily speaking) are the crux of Selye’s research. If you do not fight or flee, the crucial question is what happens to the body if this response (with all its accompanying hormones, increased blood sugar and other metabolic changes) is repeatedly activated and not used?
Without doubt, one common result is the disease hypertension or permanently elevated blood pressure, which is known as the ‘silent killer’. This condition is considered to be a major predisposing cause of many fatal heart conditions and similar serious diseases. Everyone is aware of the momentary muscular effects of being frightened or angry (immediately increased tension in all the muscles of the body). However, the main effect of the repeated activation of this response is permanently elevated tension in the muscles of the body. Elevated muscle tension may even be the primary cause of hypertension. Either way, those muscles that are pre-stressed for one reason or another are precisely those muscles of concern to us here—the neck and back muscles. I believe that our evolutionary inheritance, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, is one of the main reasons neck and back pain is so commonplace.
Fortunately, there is a complementary physiological and psychological response, tentatively named the relaxation response (Benson, 1976), which can be cultivated by everyone and achieved simply. This response appears to be controlled by the hypothalamus, just like the fight or flight response. The effects of the relaxation response are the opposite of those of the fight or flight response, and include the effect of reduced tension in the muscles of the body.
It is not at all clear why most people are more effective at mobilising the fight or flight response rather than the relaxation response, but I suspect that evolutionary pressures favoured the former and not the latter. The relaxation response—which everyone demonstrates to some degree—can be vastly enhanced and actively used to counter the impacts of life. Further, the capacity to elicit this response at will may well confer a similar evolutionary advantage for modern humans as the fight or flight response once did for our ancestors.
For the sufferer of neck or back pain, learning how to access this response may be used in the short term to cope with the pain or discomfort of an attack, by helping the relevant muscles relax. More important, though, are the medium- and long-term benefits: increased ‘headroom’ between the normal state of your muscles and the kind of increased tension which predisposes you to an attack of neck or back pain. Together with the stretching and strengthening exercises, improving the relaxation response forms a highly efficient, multi-stranded approach to alleviating the problem.
Checking your breathing pattern (page 216)
[In the lying position.]
Place one hand flat on your chest and the other flat on your abdomen, over the navel. Many people do not breathe abdominally but breathe mostly into the top of the chest. Most physiologists believe that chest breathing is not optimally efficient, because it requires the muscles of inspiration (the scalene group, among others) to be used in addition to the diaphragm. These neck, shoulder and rib muscles are used together with the diaphragm when we are breathing really deeply, as might happen when you sprint for the bus or as you sit gasping in the bus recovering from the unaccustomed run, or when you are frightened.
However, these muscles are not the ones to use when learning how to relax, partly because of the emotional states the body has learned to associate with their use. For this reason, when you begin to practise, place your hands as suggested. As you breathe in, you will feel the hand over the navel rise as the abdomen is lifted by the diaphragm contracting. Ideally, the hand on the chest should not move. If it does, try to feel how to breathe so that it does not (pressing the stomach out as you breathe in is a good way to start). Once you feel the difference, practice will be easy. Imagine the breath flowing deep into the abdomen while you try to feel it. Like many things, it is more a matter of awareness than the need to develop a special skill.
Stretching & Flexibility, 2nd edition (first edition published 1999)
Breathing in the context of Contract–Relax (page 11)
The final step has two parts. Once the contraction phase is over, the student will need to relax. This is a much more difficult instruction than merely reading or hearing will suggest. The original PNF handbook is silent on this element, but I can say that without effective techniques to make the body relax at this point, the C–R technique will produce indifferent results. We have found that attending to one’s breathing is the key to this essential aspect. We make no recommendations for breathing in the contraction phase, for experience has shown that most people will automatically brace themselves using the Valsalva manoeuvre (holding the breath against increased tension in the abdominal and other trunk muscles). However, the same reflexive behaviour militates directly against effective stretching so, after the contraction, the teacher will direct the class to take a full breath in and, except for any muscles being used to support the position, to let the whole body go soft and relax. Then, as the student breathes out, the final phase, the restretch, is performed.
One – of the 10 – principles of using the ST approach effectively (page 20)
Always hold the final position for the recommended time; if you cannot, you are overdoing the stretch.
All of us have seen someone at some time (often at a party, and frequently after a drink or two) drop down into the splits to show off how flexible they are (or used to be). This can cause injuries. Unless you can hold a position, you do not own that flexibility. The usual recommendation for the length of time to stay in an end position will be expressed in breaths; one breath being a normally paced breath in and out. Ten breaths is around 30 seconds if you are working hard, and is the minimum time the end position should be held. You may benefit from a longer time, especially if large muscles are involved.
How to breathe in the exercises (pages 16–17)
Breathing cannot be separated from effective stretching. I have previously covered the specifics of how to breathe, but I wish to return to this important component of the stretching experience from a slightly different perspective. The way we breathe is so much a part of all of life’s activities that we tend to ignore it, except in extreme circumstances. However, because the way we breathe is fundamental to the experience of being alive, techniques that can help us to become more aware of this vital process, and perhaps improve its efficiency, are crucial. Attending to this aspect can have dramatic effects on the quality of one’s life.
Think back to the last time you felt angry. Let us say you were driving to work and someone thoughtlessly and dangerously cut in front of you. What were your first responses? You took in a breath, all the trunk and neck muscles tightened, and you may have felt a flood of adrenaline through the body. Your pulse and respiration rate went up, and you became strongly aware of how you felt. Does this sound familiar? It is such patterns of increased tension and altered breathing that form our emotional responses, a theme I will return to below. And, in this typical example, how would you go about calming yourself? You would take a few deep breaths in and out; as you did so your body would settle down to its more comfortable rhythms.
When you are stretching, you need to realise that holding the breath in, or breathing in an unusually shallow way (usually referred to as tidal breathing), is one of the body’s primary protective mechanisms. That is, when threatened or in pain, you will tend to hold your breath, and your muscles, of your trunk in particular, will display elevated tension. In any case, electromyographic studies have shown that tension in the muscles is slightly elevated with every breath in, and that this decreases as you breathe out. These facts about how the body works suggest strongly that any stretching effort will be best made as you breathe out. If you take a deliberate breath in before you stretch, the effect is heightened; in addition, you will be teaching the body to associate the sensation of being stretched with the action of a deliberate breath out and, once learned, this association will help you stay more relaxed in all other parts of your lives.
It must be obvious, but worth repeating, that it is not possible to feel relaxed while the muscles of the body are tense. By ‘tense’, I mean having elevated muscle tension, for some tension (called tonus) is necessary for all of the normal body functions (from holding oneself up during the day to digesting food) and the absolute degree of normal muscle tension and its range vary from person to person. When I refer to tension, I mean changes to one’s usual patterns, wherever they may be found on some universal scale. Western medicine recognises two ways of reducing muscle tension to desirable levels: the use of one of the benzodiazepine prescription medications, and the development of techniques that lead to the relaxed state. The benzodiazepines achieve their anti-anxiety effects mainly by reducing muscle tension—one’s state of mind alters as one’s physical state changes. I have dealt with the state of relaxation in some detail elsewhere (see Laughlin, 1995); here it is enough to say that there are a great many approaches to acquiring this state, among them yoga nidra, the many approaches to meditation, biofeedback and self-hypnosis. For an excellent non-technical introduction to these concepts, see Benson (1976).
There is a third way of acquiring an enhanced state of relaxation at will: the use and practice of the right stretching exercise. By ‘right’, I mean efficient, but any stretching exercise will have this effect, to a greater or lesser extent.
I mention the two recognised ways of altering one’s state of mind to feel more relaxed to make the point that attending to your emotional state and the accompanying breathing patterns while you practise will lead to significantly heightened awareness. There is no doubt that acquiring this sense will improve your flexibility (in the sense of what might be observed by someone else), but of far greater importance is what you will learn about yourself in the process—knowledge that simply cannot be gained any other way. I will expand on this idea below.
Kit’s update to breathing – 2 March 2018
The addition I will speak of is perhaps the most significant change we have made to the “method” over its 30+ year history.
After the contraction, take in a breath, and breathe out, while dropping the awareness to the tummy (abdomen, if you prefer, but the physical stomach is more accurate for reasons I will not go into here; the stomach is on the left side, behind and under the ribs) and let this area go completely soft. If I had a dollar for every time I have made this direction on workshops, then felt the nearest person’s tummy (almost always to find it held rigid) I could retire. This is simply protective tension—the tension any animal produces when it feels threatened. Letting your tummy go soft while breathing out changes this experience.
Aside: the point is similar to one I made in one of the excerpts above: you are all used to being the way you are, and no amount of thinking will change this baseline. You cannot ‘force’ yourself to relax (and no one else can, either). But when someone gently presses your tummy, and says, ‘let this go completely soft’, you will feel this happen—and your state of mind changes in the same instant. If you pay close attention to the suite of sensations that accompany this, becoming more familiar with them (embodying them, in fact) then in the future (with practise!) you will be able to recreate this more relaxed state at will. Back to the stretching.
Now take in a second breath, and keeping the tummy relaxed, move slowly a bit further into the stretch, only moving as you actually are breathing out. If, when you come to the end of the breath out, you feel you can go a bit deeper into the stretch, stop moving, take in another breath, and repeat the process, moving only as you breathe out.
And for the more advanced students, take care to pay attention to these same feelings when you are near your limits in any of the major end poses (front or side splits, for example): the same protective tension will re-manifest. Apply the same medicine: let the tummy go soft and only go deeper while you can hold this state. In other words, when you cannot relax your tummy, that’s far enough for today.
In sum: breathe in; drop awareness to tummy as you breathe out, letting it go completely soft, then breathe in again, and as you breathe out, move deeper into the stretch, keeping the tummy soft.
Kit’s update to breathing – 7 February 2023
Everything mentioned in the excerpts above is still relevant, in my experience, especially the 2018 update details. But the deeper importance of being aware of one’s breathing (here I mean, "by being aware of all the movements in the body we label ‘breathing’"), we are holding ourselves in the continually unfolding present (physical sensations only exist in the present). This is how we practise the ‘yoga of daily life’. Have a look at this, if you want to go a bit deeper: