I am a meditation teacher. And meditation teachers are, stereotypically, all about breathing. I am also a person with MS. I was diagnosed in 1994 when there was no medication and I have had no medication since.
I have experienced the power that bringing good breathing to our condition can reap. I used to be a bad breather. I remember before I even had a name and a diagnosis for my disease, describing to people how I found it “exhausting to breathe.”
In fact, that was a dominant symptom. I remember returning home from work completely spent and, when my husband asked me a question, wondering whether I had the breath to answer it or whether I should save that energy that it would take to speak for the actual act of breathing itself.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I have added breathing to the power-pack of internal resources I have activated, cultivated and use to keep on top of this challenging condition.
Why does breathing matter for people with MS?
The way we breathe affects our energy levels, our alertness, our moods and our digestion. It has also been strongly implicated, by robust science, in the levels of inflammation in our bodies.
When I am hit by the life-denying creature that is fatigue, I rapidly experience brain fog, muscle weakness, low mood and a sense of 'fading out' of my immediate surroundings. The bed-fellow of low mood and weakness is panic – panic in the form of questions. How will I cope if this continues?
Will I get home safely and in time for the collapse to come?. Who will I have to cancel on and therefore disappoint? How long will this episode last? What will I have to sacrifice if it doesn’t clear up quickly?
To understand how vital our breathing is, it helps to be aware of a couple of things someone with MS might do when they begin to feel the onset of fatigue. The first – and most natural – is to feel increased stress.
Something that happens when we are stressed is that we immediately change our breathing pattern from slow and deep to rapid and shallow. We breathe from the upper half of our body only – a phenomenon known as 'chest breathing' – and only use half the apparatus of our diaphragm.
The instant effect of this is that our nervous systems get the message we are under threat and they must channel all their energy into getting ready to run from this threat.
In MS, this overloads an already over-active nervous system and the enemy of the rest and repair state that our bodies are really asking for.the second thing that tends to happen when we feel fatigued is that we reflexively slouch.
Keeping good posture
There is a slump to our posture, as we surrender to the feeling that the effort of holding ourselves up is too fatiguing. This is, again, very natural and understandable, and yet again, exacerbates the problem.
When we slouch and crumple into ourselves, we constrict the very area we need for charging ourselves with vital breath. We are essentially suffocating ourselves. So two things are crucial.
Making room for breath and breathing a full, whole breath that can flow freely, reassure and soothe our nervous system that all is okay (and thus reduce inflammation) reach all the organs that need oxygen to improve their function – our muscles, our organs, our digestions and our brains in ways that make us feel better emotionally – and charge us with vitality.
Our breathing involves musculature – the muscles of our diaphragm. Everyone with MS is familiar with the phrase “Use it or lose it” and that goes for toning the muscles of the diaphragm itself.
These muscles start in our core, our belly. Regularly practicing deep breathing – from low down in your belly way all the way up into your chest, collar bones and throat – is a great exercise for toning these most important and life giving muscles of all. Breathing For Fatigue from Alison Potts on Vimeo.
Toning breathing muscles
Here is an exercise to cultivate strong, toned breathing muscles which will support you in feeling more alive and vibrant and to bring into play when you begin to feel the onset of fatigue.
Sit in a chair or up in bed or lie on the floor. If you are in a chair, make sure your bum is pressed back against the back of your seat – you will feel instantly how that makes you more upright.
If you are in bed, prop yourself up with pillows or have someone stack pillows for you, for the same effect.
If you are lying on the floor, for instance on a yoga mat, I recommend placing a folding blanket underneath your shoulder girdle so that you get a lift in your heart and with your hands lying along the floor at your sides, making sure your palms are open to the ceiling.
This in turn opens your shoulders and your chest so that it has plenty of room for breath.
Your guiding thought should always be “am I making the maximum room in my body for my breath?” Breathe deep and low.
With your spine long like this, make your belly soft so that it can easily fill with breath. Taking your attention to your belly will help you know how deeply to breathe. You want to feel it puff up with air. Take that breath in a leisurely, almost luxurious way, all the way up to your chest, collarbones and throat.
And now – here’s the big tip – when you release that breathe as an exhale, make it even longer (if only a little bit) than your inhale was.
Recent science has discovered that this kind of breathing – making your exhale longer than your inhale – has a kind of magical effect on your nervous system, phenomenally reducing stress hormones and inflammation. It's a great practice to do a regular check-in.
Where is your breathing coming from? Is coming from it low down or high up? Does it feel rapid, scattered and shallow? Or like a good massage on the inside – strong, tender and delicious? Don’t force, or over focus. Just make it luxurious and full.
You’ll know the difference. Meditation can increase the healing power of your breathing even more. If you think about it, we breathe our thoughts. Thus, just as our thinking affects our feeling, so does our breathing with the kind of thoughts we have.
Take it from me – I have practiced this for years – this practice can have a radical effect on shifting the state of our bodies. (And if you don’t want to take it from me, there is plenty of robust, replicated science into the mind-body-system that backs my claims.)
But do try it for yourself. What thought would you like to breathe with right now that would make you feel better and more vitalized? A word I love is 'well being'.
Another is 'vitality.' Consider how around you, in the earth’s atmosphere from which you breathe, are all the abundant energies of life, growth and creation. Consider how you are actually being nourished with those same molecules and atoms of life force every time you receive and are charged with a breath from life.
As you breathe in, take a big drink of these energies and think of your thought or word – the one you have chosen to infuse your being with to make it feel better.
Every time you exhale, pour that breath and those qualities back through your body, infusing every organ and cell of your being. If you’d like to spend some time drinking in this elixir and letting it bring good things to your body, listen to my guided meditation for breathing vitality: And just a note to finish on. When I first heard people waxing on about the power of breathing, I thought yada, yada, yada. But that all changed when I experienced the massive change in state I myself could bring about in my body just by becoming conscious of my breath and making it a good breath. It’s among the best anti-fatigue strategies I have and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Alison Potts has had MS all her adult life and was diagnosed at a time when there were no medical treatments. The journey to discovering optimum self care and thriving has been the best she could have taken. Born in England, she followed the sun for the power of vitamin D and moved to Australia where she is now a Meditation and Vitality Coach. Like her page on Facebook for more information.