Breath of fire strengthens your breathing muscles

Breath of fire is a yoga breathing technique that has many benefits, including strengthening the breathing muscles. This is timely, given that one of the early symptoms of COVID-19 may include shortness of breath, which after 5-10 days may turn into quite difficult breathing.

Even mild cases can last several weeks and require breathing exercises that physicians are prescribing. Pulmonary doctors in hospitals are working hard to figure out exactly what’s happening with the lungs and with oxygen intake when COVID turns serious, and whether (and how) the protocol for putting patients with difficulty breathing on ventilators (if even available) needs to be changed.

It makes sense to me, given that there’s no vaccine or immunity to this novel virus and they’re still figuring out how best to treat severe cases, to prepare for the worst, and strengthening breathing muscles is one way to do that.

My experience with breath of fire

I’ve written about breath of fire before, because it helped me reduce the discomfort of a hiatal hernia, which involves the opening in the diaphragm for the esophagus to pass through to the stomach.

I’d had occasional discomfort for a while. One day, after a group meditation in a biodynamics class, it suddenly came to my mind that this technique, which I’d learned in a yoga class years previously, could help.

I started practicing it, and it did help. It’s rare for me to feel any hiatal discomfort now after 2.5 years of regular practice.

The anatomy

The diaphragm Is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity (containing heart and lungs) and the abdominal cavity (containing liver, gallbladder, pancreas, stomach, spleen, kidneys, adrenals, bladder, small and large intestines, and reproductive organs).

The muscle attaches to the bottom of the rib cage (higher in front, lower in back).

When we do diaphragmatic breathing on the inhalation, the dome of the diaphragm flattens and our rib cages and bellies expand. When we exhale, the dome of the diaphragm moves up and our rib cages and bellies narrow.

Other breathing muscles that breath of fire activates include the external intercostal muscles between the ribs. The major accessory breathing muscles include those surrounding the rib cage: the pectorals, trapezius, the lats, the serratus muscles, the spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum.

Because breath of fire uses forceful exhalations, the abs are also involved: rectus abdominis, the transverse and oblique abdominals, and the internal intercostals.

Other benefits

Doing breath of fire can help us to not feel so helpless when so much is beyond our control in regard to the pandemic.

It energizes the mind, fights depression, and may help with controlling diabetes, asthma, blood pressure, and obesity.

It provides your body with more oxygen. (I just took a pulse oximeter reading before doing 3 minutes of breath of fire — 96 — and after — 98.)

It may increase mental clarity and motivation, being associated with the solar plexus or power chakra, right below the diaphragm.

It massages your abdominal organs. People pay good money for this!

Because movement helps our lymph flow, doing breath of fire especially activates abdominal lymph, increasing the elimination of toxins. It’s said that 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut in the form of gut-associated lymph tissue, so breath of fire strengthens immunity.

The yoga connection

In Sanskrit, breath of fire is called kapalabhati, which translates as “forehead or skull shining”. This refers to the facial radiance of people who practice this technique regularly.

You want some of that, right?

Keep in mind: as with all yoga, you are the ultimate teacher. Listen to your body. Let it tell you when to stop. Let it tell you the pace that is right for you. Be kind.

And if you haven’t done yoga before, I recommend getting started. Yoga with Adriene is a YouTube channel with lots of classes of various lengths, including classes for beginners, and nearly 7 million followers.

Please don’t overdo it. It’s strong medicine and should not be done if you have epilepsy, have had recent surgery, or are pregnant. Kundalini yogis require that women not do it during the first three days of their menstrual periods.

To avoid muscle soreness, start with 30 seconds. It’s much kinder to build strength gradually.

Also, don’t practice it right after eating a meal!

Here’s Adriene teaching breath of fire: https://youtu.be/jbtLH-3DfLc

And go! (Let me know if you have any questions, comments, or results to relate.)

Self-care for massage therapists, part 1

I’ve been doing 16-20 hours of massage per week lately, mostly Swedish but also a little deep tissue work. (I’m still getting up to speed on ashiatsu.)

The up side? I burn a lot of calories so I can really dig in at the table (one of life’s sweet pleasures), and I sleep well, being physically fatigued, another sweet by-product. And of course I’m the richer for it, in money, skill, connections, and making a difference.

The down side is that such physical work can take a toll on my body. I understand why a lot of massage therapists get burned out and leave the profession. From my fingers to my spine, I have felt achiness, inflammation, swelling, tenderness, stiffness.

Luckily, I belong to a group on LinkedIn, the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP). I joined to keep up with discussions about the profession. One person not long ago asked the following question:

What do you do for your hands when they ache after giving a series of massages? I am using proper body mechanics. My hands ache. I appreciate your feedback.

There were 55 responses that I’m going to summarize, because I feel so grateful to have this resource. Thanks to all the MTs who responded.

Please note that many of these are new to me; I am just summarizing what people posted. Later I will post what’s worked for me (that I’ve tried so far) along with a few of my own discoveries.

Recovery time

  • scheduling days off to recover
  • taking a 30 minute break after 3 hours (or however long works for you)
  • taking adequate time between clients to recover
  • not scheduling deep tissue sessions back to back

Body mechanics, stretching, strengthening, and recovery

  • paying attention to how you use your hands on your days off
  • doing hand stretching and strengthening exercises
  • resting in semi-supine position to open the brachial plexus (on your back, knees up, feet flat, book under head for 15-20 minutes)
  • paying even more attention to body mechanics as you work
  • getting a colleague to observe you work and give feedback
  • stretching after each client
  • lifting weights to strengthen arms and hands
  • punching a punching bag (with training)

Therapeutic devices

Heat and cold

  • dipping hands into hot wax/paraffin bath
  • applying hot and cold hydrotherapy
  • dipping hands into ice water

Self-massage

  • getting regular massage yourself
  • stripping your own forearm muscles
  • getting Reflexology on your hands or doing it yourself
  • learning Trager self-care movements for the hands
  • getting myofascial release work done on your arms
  • this page describes how to release wrist trigger points
  • this page describes how to release tennis elbow
  • cupping with suction cups

Delivering massage

  • working within your limitations (i.e., telling clients you don’t do full body deep tissue work)
  • reading the book Save Your Hands!
  • switching to Trager
  • learning Reiki so the energy goes only one way
  • learning Bamboossage, Ashiatsu Oriental bar therapy, or floor Ashiatsu to deliver deep tissue work
  • use alternating areas of the hand/forearm/elbow in moderation
  • having a box of tools available (balls, bamboo sticks, knobbers) to use on clients’  tough spots
  • using Art Riggs’ techniques for deep tissue work
  • using your forearms instead of hands whenever possible
  • using cupping
  • applying hot towels to client
  • holding thumbs tight against hand and using body to push for static pressure point work
  • using the edge of your hand or base of palm area instead of thumbs for sweeping or kneading motions

Oils, herbs, creams, gels, minerals

  • applying essential oil of rosemary for warming or peppermint for cooling (add to jojoba oil)
  • applying oils that are anti-inflammatory: helichrysum, frankincense, German chamomile, Cape chamomile, katrafay, and ginger
  • applying oils that are analgesic: lemongrass, clove, litsea cubeba, peppermint, wintergreen, and eucalyptus citriodora
  • combining anti-inflammatory and analgesic oils; applying them to neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, and feet to relieve hands
  • applying St. John’s wort oil, white willow tincture, fresh turmeric tincture, comfrey fomentation, raw apple cider vinegar fomentation
  • using arnica cream
  • applying Biofreeze
  • applying magnesium oil or gel
  • soaking in an Epsom salt bath
  • soaking your hand in lukewarm or cold water with a minimum amount of salt

Diet, teas, supplements

  • staying hydrated
  • changing your diet to lower inflammation (no details given)
  • drinking coconut water
  • drinking a blueberry smoothie
  • eating cucumbers with sea salt
  • avoiding eating sugars, nightshades, baked products with flour and corn
  • avoiding caffeine
  • taking turmeric internally
  • drinking comfrey tea
  • taking supplements for joint health (no details provided)
  • taking MSM with glucosamine