At age 28, Rachel Lando was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that hardens the skin and connective tissue. Due to her condition, she lost 40 pounds, had unmanageable pain, was in and out of the hospital with infections and was so weak that she could no longer walk. Five months after her diagnosis, doctors told Lando that she was going to die, and she was put into a medically-induced coma.
Rachel LandoHollye Shepherd
Fortunately, Lando survived, but she struggled to function when she returned home. She needed the assistance of a caretaker to support her in daily activities like walking and eating. Five years later, Lando was in a coma again from complications with scleroderma.
“It was debilitating,” Lando, now 39 years old and living in Park City, Utah says. “For me, the worst thing was I couldn’t read anymore, my cognition was so impacted. I had musculoskeletal decline. I couldn’t do anything.”
Jill Miller’s “Body by Breath” Method
Once she received medication and was feeling healthy enough, Lando went to physical therapy. Then she tried lifting weights, yoga and Pilates. While she found yoga and Pilates helpful, it wasn’t until she discovered Jill Miller, author of “Body by Breath” and founder of Tune Up Fitness, that she stopped a six year cycle of sickness and minimized her need for pharmaceutical intervention.
Miller’s technique provided an accessible, multi-faceted practice of self awareness, breathwork and self-massage exercises using props such as balls, blankets and a yoga mat. After one video session with Miller in 2018, Lando felt a substantial release of physical and mental pain. Since 2019, she has been breathing and rolling every day.
“I’ve now been studying with Jill for five years, and really intensely for three,” Lando says. “It’s changed my whole life. I’m back to reading full books. It was a full spiritual, emotional and physical shift. It brought me back to life.”
Breath and Emotional State
Jack Feldman is a distinguished professor of neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles, and David Geffen School of Medicine Chair in Neuroscience. He is a pioneer in the field of respiration for his discovery of the areas of the brain where breath – inhalations and exhalations – are initiated. He is also a co-author of a paper published in March 2022 in the Annual Review of Neuroscience about the connections between breathing rhythm and emotions.
According to Feldman, we see, hear and smell simultaneously via different paths (eyes, ears, nose) into the brain, but we perceive something we experience as one object, which is a process called binding. The rhythm of our breath, which we can control, plays a role in binding in addition to many other processes going on in our brains. By modulating our breath, we can modify these processes, changing our mood and behavior.
“By disrupting the circuit, what happens is you feel calmer, you feel better,” Feldman says. “If you’re clinically depressed, changing your breathing pattern might help relieve your depression. If you’re clinically anxious, it might help relieve your anxiety. Not only acutely, but if you do it successfully over multiple days and weeks, it can actually begin to change that circuit for long term relief.”
Breath and Movement for Anxiety and Mental Health
While Lando battled with scleroderma, she experienced psychosis and depression. She was frequently hospitalized and would forget who she or people closest to her, like her husband, were. Lando found that the combination of breathwork and rolling improved her mental state.
“I was extremely depressed,” Lando says. “I became afraid of my own voice. I didn’t have healthy self-expression. And through a combination of these practices, I found my voice.”
Lando uses yoga breathing techniques such as exhale-accentuated breathing and physiological sighs, where you inhale deeply, sip in a bit more air at the peak, then take a long exhale, to enhance her mood. She visualizes while breathing, imagining air and energy expanding through her body in increments from her pelvis to the crown of her head and then slowly exhaling it out.
Feldman says that during deep exhalations, there’s an increase of vagus nerve activity, which are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system, and its increased activity typically results in a calmer state, slower heart rate and lower blood pressure. This is also one of the benefits of meditation and breathwork. Similar to exercise, one should ease into breathwork and build a practice that optimizes their intended results.
Myofascial Release and Movement
In the process of battling scleroderma, Lando took a yoga class with a teacher who had her lay on top of a large cushion, called a bolster. It helped her feel the subtleties of her breath and body, and to relax deeply. It felt special to Lando because she was included in the practice despite her limitations.
She found the same comfort in Miller’s teachings. The exercises utilize different-sized balls that have different firmness levels that she would roll on her sternum, torso, neck and all over her body. The props helped her get to the source of her problems, her skin started to soften, her body began to heal and open, and it made her stronger.
Miller is a contributor to the medical textbook called “Fascia, Function in Medical Applications,” a review of current myofascial research. She says that rolling decreases pain and improves both proprioception, a sense of body parts in space, and interoception, the ability to pick up on a subtle sense within your body, including perceiving your own emotions accurately. These are part of the body brain interaction that has been effective for Londo’s transition into health and thriving.
In “Body by Breath,” Miller outlines five “P’s” for parasympathetic dominance, or relaxation:
- Perspective. Have a mindset that you are someone worthy of self care. This is often accompanied with a mantra, such as: “I allow myself to relax completely.”
- Place. Find a place you can be comfortable and deeply relax.
- Position. Ideally, lay on your back, and optionally elevate your pelvis up off the floor with a prop.
- Pace of breath. Control your breath, and accentuate your exhales.
- Palpation. Practice self-massage for deeper relaxation and greater well-being.
Miller says that most are used to ramping up our sympathetic, or fight or flight response, and need to work on decompressing, without breaking down. Learning to deeply relax helped Lando become more resilient.
“Sometimes breathing isn’t enough, or some are breath practice averse,” Miller says. “The gift of having a palpating opportunity with the balls is that pressure into your structure, your fascia, your ribs, gives enough novel distraction to the brain that breath can behave anew. You start to have a different relationship with the muscles of respiration and the processes of breathing in your body.”
Miller’s book provides self massage exercises that usually take three to five minutes to complete. Lando picks an exercise, rolls and breathes everyday to keep her body flexible and pain-free and her mind healthy.
Commitment to Self-Care and Helping Others
Currently, Lando feels healthier than ever, and she’s dedicated her life to self-care and discovery by becoming an instructor. She teaches the same breathwork, movement and self massage that helped her to those with disabilities and chronic illness, such as multiple sclerosis and scleroderma. She uses props to empower her students and keep them safe. She also offers classes that integrate breath and slow motion Pilates exercises on props.
“I truly feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been,” Lando says. “I know it’s because of integrating these rolling, self-care, self-awareness and resilience-building practices into my life.”