As more people discover the joys and benefits of being upside down whether while developing a yoga practice or through an aerial silks, trapeze or even pole dancing class, they are eventually confronted with the following question, “how on earth do I breath while holding this completely unnatural position?”
If you haven’t spent much time upside down then the answer might seem quite simple, “the same way you do right side up!”. Of course, you’d be completely wrong and one handstand against a wall for 30 seconds will leave you panting with the rest of us.
We breathe, while right side up, using our diaphragm to pull air into our lungs. Our bellies gently expand as the diaphragm tightens and drops to create space for the air, followed by an expanding of the chest to allow even more air into the lungs if necessary. This creates a vacuum which draws the air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes and rises, the air is pushed out of the lungs and the cycle is ready to begin again. Interfere with that expanding action and you will discover very quickly that you are no longer able to get enough oxygen and must work ever harder to keep up with your need for oxygen.
Have someone sit on your chest for a while and you will tire surprisingly quickly as you fight to pull air into your lungs. Now have them sit on your abdomen - carefully of course. Also don’t choose someone that weighs twice what you do, be reasonable. There is a distinct difference to how you breathe in these two situations which can help you understand the nuances between chest breathing and abdominal breathing.
Through meditation we learn to breathe from the abdomen using the diaphragm as opposed to mostly filling our upper chests with air, often raising our shoulders up towards the ears which leads to short shallow breathing. Deep low abdomen breathing signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Short shallow breathing creates a feeling of tension and even fear which can lead to hyperventilation, but we’ll get to that later.
Stand in front of a mirror with one or two hands on your belly and breathe in. You want to feel your hands being pushed out almost as if a balloon is being blown up, then possibly see your chest expand outwards, but you do not want to see your shoulder rising at all, creeping towards your ears. The only time we want our shoulders up by our ears is in a handstand, the rest of the time we want out shoulders down, with the shoulder blades pulled down and together, expanding the chest.
But lets get back to upside down breathing. When you are in an upside down position you no longer have gravity helping you to drop your diaphragm to make some space for air. On top of that, gravity is actually making it harder to move your diaphragm towards the ceiling (don’t forget we are upside down) and you have to move it farther since just by being upside-down it is being pulled towards your head leaving you with a smaller space for you lungs to begin with. You also have internal organs pressing down now further reducing space and forcing you to push them out of the way when you fill up your lungs. If you have ever been pregnant, you know only too well what I am talking about.
Would you be surprised to learn that humans can’t survive for very long in an inverted position?
To learn more about breathing in a handstand, read Mastering breathing in a handstand, my next post. If you would like to skip right to the breathing exercises then click on Two game changing breathing exercises to head right over there now.
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.