Learning to Breathe: Physiotherapy and Yoga Practice

Updated: Jan 10

The health and wellness practice known to many as Yoga is rife with all sorts of strange movements and alignments. Postures that are assumed are at times odd, strange, or inaccessible to many individuals in the western world. But the practice has some core principles that anyone can benefit from. One of these, is breathing.

Breathwork and breathing is an integral process, guided by a centre in the brainstem called the Medulla oblongata. This centre establishes and sets the rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm and accessory muscles of breathing, allowing for effective and (relatively) efficient subconscious control of breath. This is beneficial; if one had to constantly focus on breathing there would be very little room for other cognitive functions. This centre is also connected to areas of the brain responsible for cardiac output (read: circulation and oxygen distribution), as well as the voluntary centres in the brain. Essentially, if our heartrate and oxygen demands increase due to exercise, our respiratory centre will change the activity of our diaphragm and accessory musculature to increase the rate at which we breathe. This has a downside though; stressors other than exercise (like stress, pain, anxiety, depression, and the like) can cause our breathing to change. Often, it causes what is known as "Dysfunctional Breathing", wherein breath holding, hyperventilation, or a reliance on accessory muscles for breathing occurs frequently and sporadically. This can cause a feedforward mechanism wherein the change in breathing actually facilitates the pain and anxieties we would be feeling.

This is where those concepts derived from yoga (and probably one's general understanding of breathing in general) plays an integral part. Much of the breathing practices enacted during yoga focus on "diaphragmatic breath", wherein one tries to allow relaxation of the neck and upper shoulder girdle (regions that house the accessory respiratory muscles) in lieu of taking longer, drawn out breaths with the diaphragm. This action helps twofold; by breathing more deeply and regularly one normalises the functioning of the Respiratory centres in the Medulla Oblongata, but it also helps to stimulate the Parasympathetic nervous system. Colloquially known as the "rest and digest" system, the parasympathetic systems also allow for the relaxation of the mind and body such that it can decrease anxiety, pain, and the general stressors affecting an individual. The breathing practices indicated in yoga have been corroborated in the literature as useful tools that any practitioner can put to work during massage, physiotherapy, exercise, or counselling.

So long story short: if one is feeling anxious, pained, or stressed about life or their bodies, try find some space to breathe deep.


Lucas Hampel BSc (Hons.), MScPT, RYT 300

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