Breathing is instrumental to the very act of life itself. We need to breathe to oxygenate our blood and keep every cell in our body working at optimal levels. Breathing is also directly linked to our stability – our ability to balance and our body’s internal ability to stabilize organs, bones, joints, and muscles.
You’ve probably heard of your diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle, particularly if you are an actor, singer or have ever taken any public speaking courses. The diaphragm is an amazing muscle – when we inhale, the diaphragm contracts downwards moving our internal organs to create space for our lungs to fill with air. When we exhale, the diaphragm moves back to its resting state. The diaphragm has far reaching effects on the body as a whole, in part because of the fact that the fascia surrounding the diaphragm also connects to our transverse abdominals (TVA) and the psoas muscle.
This group of muscles and the surrounding fascia is responsible for supporting, protecting, and stabilizing the abdomen, all the organs, and the spine. When these muscles work properly, they contract automatically before you move. When they work with less than optimal function, this reflex becomes inhibited and you may find yourself pulling out your back when you bend over to pick something up.
Now you may be wondering… How could I possibly breathe poorly? Isn’t breathing automatic?
The answer is that yes, your body inhales and exhales completely without your conscious thought. You could hardly be expected to focus on breathing during every waking moment! However, our daily activities can lead to poor posture and restriction in areas of our body that see constant compression. This ultimately results in poor function in the muscles and supporting connective tissue that assist with breathing on a daily basis.
So how do I know if I’m breathing well?
Take a moment to notice how you breathe. In a seated position, take a few deep inhales and exhales. Try counting to 5 on your inhale and then to 5 again on your exhale. Repeat this 5 – 10 times.
As you inhale, do you notice any of these changes in your body?
- Rising shoulders or tension in your shoulders and neck.
- Tension or arching in your back, particularly feeling the bottom of your ribs move away from the chair.
- A big swell or expansion in your belly area.
- Difficulty in breathing in for a full 5 counts or exhaling for a full 5 counts
How to improve your breathing
In order to improve our breath, we want to practice a type of breathing called Posterior Lateral Breathing. In this type of breathing, we focus on using the breath to expand the back and side areas of our ribcage. This breath improves movement in areas of our diaphragm that are frequently restricted as well as in the intercostal muscles, which connect each rib to the adjacent rib. By developing more movement in these areas, we also improve communication throughout our Core, or Inner Unit, which consists of the Transverse Abdominals (TVA), Psoas, Internal Obliques and surrounding tissues.
- Lie down on your back. Feel free to lie on a rug or mat so that you are as comfortable as possible.
- Bend your knees, and place your feet on the mat so that they are hip width apart and your knees are facing the ceiling.
- Find neutral spine. In neutral spine, you should feel your sacrum, entire rib cage, and the back of your skull on the mat. You should also feel spaces between your lumbar spine (lower spine just behind your belly button) and your neck and the floor. For more information about neutral spine, watch this video.
- Place your hands on your bottom ribs. Your thumbs and finger tips should point up towards the ceiling with your palms gently touching the rib cage. Keep your shoulders relaxed. (NOTE: If it difficult to touch your own ribs or keep your shoulders relaxed, you can place a towel around the bottom of your ribs and hold it with both hands above you.)
- Take a slow inhale on 5 counts. As you inhale, focus on breathing into your hands and into the space of the back of your ribs on the mat. Your spine should stay in neutral while your breathe. Avoid arching your back, raising your shoulders, or letting your belly rise. (If you are using a towel, breathe into the towel.)
- Exhale slowly on 5 counts making a SHH … sound. Exhale the air completely from your body. You should feel your waist draw in automatically. This is your transverse abdominals working to stabilize your core. Again, your spine should stay in neutral.
- Practice this breath pattern 5-10 times. Does this feel different from how you were breathing before?
You can do this daily or even several times a day. It is also a great thing to do prior to exercise as it reminds your body how to breathe more efficiently and helps your core activate more automatically. This will make your workouts more effective, efficient, and safe.