”No, no, no! Through your stomach! Try again.” I was lying on the bauble at the physiotherapist’s clinic. A few days ahead I had been given the message that I had a thing called lymphedema and that my legs would never go back to normal. A message quite difficult to comprehend, especially because I had no idea of what consequences this condition “lymphedema” would have in relation to my everyday life.
And now, lying on the hard bauble, I was told by my physiotherapist that I had to learn how to drain my legs from fluids manually, also know as self drainage or manual lymphatic drainage. I would have to go through this massage procedure every day in an attempt to help my lymphatic flow and prevent my legs from swelling even more. And deep breaths were an essential part of that procedure.
“You have to think of it this way; instead of your chest rising every time you breathe in, your stomach has to rise. You have to breath all the way down your stomach, not just stop your breathing when it reaches your chest.” I understood what the physiotherapist was saying to me, but I could not make it work. I could not make my stomach rise instead of my chest; there was some kind of a blockage. There was not much else to do than go home and practice. Practice until I was able to breathe all the way down my stomach without any mental effort to do so. And so I did.
To some people it comes naturally to breath down their stomach instead of down their chest area, to others – like me – it can be quite challenging to learn. But when you have lymphedema, breathing this way is a huge part of maintaining and helping your lymphatic flow. Deep breathing is not only a meditative tool to help you attaining better mental balance and decrease the stress levels in your body; I have learned that it is also a matter of improving your health.
But why is this? What does the deep breathing do for you, especially if you are dealing with lymphedema? And how can you incorporate deep breathing into your daily life?
These are the questions I will try to answer in this article.
WHAT IS DEEP BREATHING?
Deep breathing is also called diaphragmatic breathing. It is a way of breathing where you do not breathe “half way through” your body (meaning only down your lungs), but all the way down your abdomen.
Deep breathing is a simple exercise: You breathe in slowly through your nose all the way down your stomach, so your stomach rises. Then you slowly breathe out through your mouth. (However, I sometimes breathe out my nose instead, for example when I meditate or do yoga, and this have a great effect for me as well.)
Repeat this type of breathing for just a few minutes to get the effect of circulating the lymph fluids in your body.
Normally people have a tendency to breathe down their chest with the result of the chest rising, not the stomach. This is for some considered to be a form of shallow breathing. By breathing deep you will instead feel – and see – your stomach rising and at the same it feels like your body is being kind of renewed. This type of breathing can be difficult in the beginning, but focus on pushing out your stomach when you breathe in. Eventually you will get the hang of it and you will not have to focus on pushing your stomach out every time you do it.
I especially enjoy doing this exercise outside in the forest or other places with fresh air. It can make you feel like your entire body is being completely renewed and refreshed.
When you practice doing deep breaths, it can be an advantage to lay down on your couch, floor or bed in silence. However, keep in mind that is not time for sleeping; keep focusing and practicing your breathing.
Another great exercise is to get another person to put his or her hand on your stomach and press down a bit. Then you have to breathe in and focus on pushing out your stomach in the area where the other person has put his or her hand. This is a exercise often performed at lymphedema therapist’s because it really get that lymphatic “pump” going.
WHAT DOES DEEP BREATHING DO FOR YOUR BODY – AND LYMPHEDEMA?
When I was first taught about lymphedema and the lymphatic system, especially one of the pieces of information stuck with me: Breathing is part of the lymphatic “pumping” system just as well as lymphatic veins and nodes. Breathing all the way down my stomach is an essential part of facilitating the lymphatic flow in my body.
Cancer Research UK describes the connection between deep breathing and lymphedema as “[d]eep breathing exercises help the flow of the lymph fluid through the body. It allows lymph to flow into the lymph system in the chest away from the area with lymphoedema. Deep breathing is helpful for all types of lymphoedema, even head and neck swelling. It works by changing the pressure in your tummy (abdomen) and chest. This encourages lymph to flow back into the blood system. Deep breathing can also help you to relax.”
A study from Australia has also shown that deep breathing combined with a simple arm movement significantly reduced the swelling in the arms of women suffering from secondary lymphedema.
The study explored how 10 minutes of standardized arm exercise and deep breathing could benefit women with secondary arm lymphedema. 38 women participated in the study and these women were measured continuously for a specific time after having performed the arm exercise combined with deep breathing.
The exercise was described as followed: “The exercise begins with the hands pointing into the sternum. The arms are then slowly opened and moved outwards until they reach full extension while the person takes in a deep breath. When the arms reach full extension, all the arm muscles are tightened and the breath held. The person then relaxes the arm muscles, moves the arms back towards the starting position while breathing out.”
The study showed that directly after performing this procedure, there was a reduction in arm volume of 5,8 %. At the 1 month follow-up the reduction was 9 %. It was concluded that all reductions were statistically significant and at the same time the women reported that the sense of arm heaviness and tightness also significantly decreased directly after performing the procedure.
In short, deep breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing – stimulates several parts of the inner body that are connected to the lymphatic system. When these parts are stimulated, the transport of lymph fluids will accelerate and by taking deep breaths you will thereby contribute to your lymphatic flow increasing.
HOW TO INCORPORATE DEEP BREATHING IN TO YOUR DAILY LIFE
Deep breathing can be incorporated into your daily life in many different ways. You can focus on deep breathing when you are doing specific kinds of exercise, you can block time to do deep breathing while doing nothing else or you can incorporate deep breathing in some of your daily chores.
In the beginning I started out by taking deep breaths in the morning. This developed into focusing on deep breathing while doing some forms of exercise, like yoga. Eventually it became so natural to me that I do not even have to focus on breathing down my stomach any longer; I now do it without being aware of it.
Down below I have listed some of the daily situations where I in a focused matter have incorporated deep breathing. Maybe you can find inspiration if you wish to incorporate deep breathing in your daily life yourself.
- While doing manual lymphatic drainage: As you can read more about here, I do self drainage – or manual lymphatic drainage – every morning. This has become a steady part of my daily routine and I never put on my stockings before having done at least a few minutes of drainage. Deep breathing is an important part of my self drainage and gets my undivided attention as the middle act of the drainage. I start out by doing the special massage by my collar bone, in my neck and in my armpits. When these 3 steps are done, I move on to the breathing part. I lie with my hands on my stomach and take deep breaths, all the way down my stomach, for at least 1 minute. With my stomach rising as much as possible while my hands are resting on it. Afterwards I continue with the lymphatic massage on the rest of my body. You can read the details about my self drainage procedure here.
- Take a focus-break a couple of times a day: It is easy to get so focused at work that you just seem to be sucked into the computer screen. Or when you are standing in your kitchen planning next week’s meals or preparing dinner, you become so focused on what you are doing that you aren’t really that mentally present. At times like that it can be a good idea to let go of what you are doing for a few seconds, close your eyes and just breathe. I often do it a few times a day when I am at work. I then push my chair away from the desk, close my eyes and focus only on taking a few deep breaths. This is not only a good exercise for my lymphatic system but for my mental health as well; afterwards I feel like my brain has been re-booted.
- Deep breathing while doing yoga: As I have written about in my article about great forms of lymphedema exercise here, I do several types of yoga weekly. When I started practicing astanga yoga with a dedicated yoga instructor downtown, he spoke a lot about the way of breathing while doing astanga. The way of breathing is an essential part of astanga yoga and it is as important to breathe in and out at the right times as it is to do the yoga poses the right way. However, I ran into a bit of trouble; the instructor kept insisting that I did not breathe down my stomach, but only in my chest as this would increase the level of heat in my body – and because breathing down my chest was the only right way of doing astanga yoga. I chose to defy him on this. I did not do yoga simply to do yoga. I did it to better my lymphatic flow and better my lymphedema. And to do that I believe it would benefit me and my body more to take deep breaths all the way down my stomach. And so I did. That did not – in any way – mean that I could not perform astanga yoga and after I began to do this kind of yoga my lymphedema is doing a lot better, despite me breathing “the wrong way” astanga-wise.
- Go for a walk – and breathe: I often go for a walk to clear my head. Going for a walk also has a lot of health benefits in itself. When I am out walking, I often put my focus on the sound of my steps in the gravel or the wind in the trees – and take deep breaths. I do not breathe deep for the entire walk, only for a few seconds a couple of times during the walk.
These things above are what make sense in my every day life, with the things I do. If you do not go for walks or do not do yoga, it might make sense for you to take deep breaths during the specific activities you do daily or weekly. Find your own routine and rhythm. The effect of deep breathing is not dependant on the specific activity you combine it with (although yoga combined with deep breathing is said to be extra beneficial to lymphedema patients). The most important thing is that you do it! No matter when or where or how often.
Because I have been so focused on deep breathing for more than 5 years now, it has now become the natural way of breathing for me. It actually feels wrong for me to only breath down my chest (except when doing sports), which is funny to think about considering the fact that I started out by not being able to breathe down my stomach at all.
But no matter if you naturally breathe deep all the time or do it focused once a day, it is an important aspect of taking care of your health and your lymphedema. So even though it for some can seem very difficult in the beginning, start out by practising doing it a few times a week. At some point it will become the easiest thing in the world to do and you will be able to easily incorporate deep breathing into your daily life.
There is only one thing left for me to type: Breathe deep, fellow lymphies.
P.S. If you would like to read more about deep breathing and the effect on lymphedema, you can find more information using the links below: