Imagine trying to blow up a balloon that is knotted in the middle, and you’ll have some idea of the stress created in your body when tight clothing restricts normal breathing. A tight and contracted abdomen, moreover, will adversely affect normal posture, digestion, and elimination.
Unfortunately, fashion trends generally are not motivated by a human being’s organic needs. Figure-controlling pantyhose and tight jeans are big business and not easily dismissed, yet they take their toll by fostering poor breathing habits. This can lead to a whole range of imbalanced conditions from hemorrhoids to circulation problems to headaches and more.
How can the diaphragm possibly do its job of expanding if the abdominal muscles refuse to move? Your body will compensate by breathing from the upper chest, but the result is only a half breath. And tightness in the lower body will be worsened by the lack of oxygen flow to that area. No wonder you may feel sleepy or in pain after only a brief period of sitting at your desk.
Take a moment to mentally scan your whole body from head to toe. Be aware of your clothing. Feel tightness anywhere? Bra? Belt? Shirt collar? Tie or scarf? Shoes? Now take a deep breath and feel any additional areas of tightness or restriction caused by your clothing. Is your body temperature comfortable? Are you too hot? Too cool? Loosen your belt or any tight or binding clothing, or take off a layer, and take another deep breath. What are you aware of now?
Next consider your posture. Is it possible to breathe fully without strain in the position you are currently in? Where does the breath get stuck; what parts of the body feel tight inside as you try to breathe deeply? Can you adjust your posture to accommodate a fuller, more relaxed breath? Do so if you wish.
There is more to this issue than restrictive clothes and poor breathing habits. What about high heels, which are known to cause misalignment in the body? What about the position and design of office furniture, the height of keyboards or computer screens? These things can usually be adjusted to accommodate better posture or to give the body more room to move. Often people put up with unnecessary pain because they don’t stop to think about how easily they could change their situation.
Let’s not overlook the issue of clothing fabrics and how these restrict the skin’s ability to breathe. Many skin disorders and rashes are simply the results of irritation and poor ventilation caused by clothing. Popular synthetics, such as dacron and polyester, are made of smooth fibers that can be woven very tightly. These fabrics may resist wrinkling, but they don’t breathe. Since the body invisibly eliminates a substantial portion of waste products through the skin, open-weave fabrics like cotton and wool are more healthful.
Many people wear a particular uniform or clothing style at their jobs. You can still dress in healthier and looser clothing with careful shopping and a little creativity. Many shoe companies now carry styles that are sensibly designed yet suitable for business wear, and comfortable, neatly tailored clothing is available in natural fabrics.
Get in the habit of tuning in to your body, becoming aware of tightness or pain that builds up or surprises you as you go through your day. This tension can take many forms. Some people walk around with their shoulders up around their ears; others keep their buttock muscles constantly contracted. You may wrinkle your forehead and give yourself wrinkles and headaches; you may grit your teeth and actually grind them down or create a chronic tension in your jaw; you may clench your fists, often to compensate for an unwillingness to express emotion in more direct ways.
Besides trapping the tension in your body, all of these unconscious gestures expend energy. Become aware of how tightly you hold your toothbrush, or your pencil, or the steering wheel of your car. Over time, these unconscious habits can take their toll. They can hurt your body, as can happen with overly vigorous tooth brushing, which can wear away tooth enamel. Sitting tensely behind the wheel of your car will increase the degree of contraction (and possibly pain) in the muscles of your lower back, neck, and legs.
A word of encouragement: Loosening up doesn’t only happen in the physical body. As you let go of tension in your muscles, you may find that emotional “muscles” are loosened up as well. That may be a welcome relief or it may provide a challenge for you. If you’ve kept your grief or fear under control with a tight body armor for a long time, such feelings may be unwelcome when they first start to wiggle free. Actually, you are offering yourself a gift with this kind of loosening up. Take it slowly; take all the time you need to befriend your feelings, as we’ve discussed in Chapter 4: Befriend Your Feelings. Refer back to that section.
Loosen Up All Over
In order to appreciate wellness, your whole system needs to be relaxed and opened up and flexible. You need to be open enough to receive the energy that breathing and food and movement and light and human communication offer you. It’s hard to receive a gift with a closed fist. Once you have a better idea of your patterns of holding or contracting, you can consciously initiate the practice of letting go. In some cases, you may need to visit a health professional who specializes in your particular condition. For instance, TMJ (temporal-mandibular joint) syndrome, a chronically tight condition of the jaw, can be helped with biofeedback training, among other approaches. But for most patterns of tension, self-care is all you need.
* Use your breath. When you notice tension, consciously direct your breath into that part of the body. Imagine, as you inhale, that the oxygen is flowing freely, in and around the tense spots. Feel it loosening muscles and supplying renewed energy to that area.
* Use visual imagery. When you find your shoulders (or any part of your body) tight, create an image that soothes you. For example, imagine that you are standing under a warm shower that is softening the tough places or washing away the tension; or see yourself floating on a cloud.
* Use self-massage. You don’t need to know any fancy massage techniques to release tension in your body. If your face is contracted with worry or concentration, a few gentle strokes with your fingertips in the tense areas can transform them. When you touch a part of your body consciously and tell it to relax, it often will, immediately.
* Use self-talk. It is possible to alleviate the pain and tension caused by contracted muscles by simply repeating a soothing phrase. “My lower back is loosening and warming,” for instance. The talk focuses your attention on the hurting place, and that attention catalyzes the relaxation of the muscles.
* Move the tension out. Physical exercise is a great way to relieve overall bodily tension. Go for a swim or a brisk walk, or put on some music and dance. Pretend that you are shaking the tension off as you move. You will find that you actually are.
Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (http://www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.