Years ago, as an athlete and postural therapist I mistakenly believed that for profound structural changes to be achieved, significant physical stress needed to be placed on the body. When colleagues would say, “Everything starts with the breath” I must admit I didn’t believe that something as simple as breathing could fix structural imbalances. I can now confidently say otherwise. After learning proper diaphragmatic breathing techniques, not only has my personal posture and structure improved significantly, but my pain symptoms have all but disappeared, my health and metabolic efficiency is at its highest, and my athletic performance has made dramatic gains. My mile time even went down by almost a full minute!
On average we take over 20,000 breaths per day so working on efficient breathing techniques can be extremely beneficial. In today’s world, the focus on diaphragmatic breathing has become widely practiced. Pilates places a large focus on widening the ribcage with the breath. The Postural Restoration Institute’s primary focus is on diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Eric Goodman’s method for spinal decompression called Foundation Training, recently incorporated diaphragmatic breathing as the “core” of its approach. The Egoscue Method, one of the leaders in postural therapy, has put out multiple videos on what they call “East/West breathing.” The truth is, when we look back at the ancient practices such as Yoga, TaiChi and Qigong, breathing has always been a central focus.
Diaphragmatic breathing not only effects posture, endurance and spinal compression, but also significantly influences the nervous system. Taking a full deep breath actually helps to turn off the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and recharge the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This allows for a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and can also help restore sleep, digestion, immune function, and have a strong influence on psychological and emotional wellbeing.
In our day and age, we are often under a great deal of stress, which can lead to an overactive SNS. To add insult to injury, due to technology, driving, and excessive sitting, a contracted, tight ribcage is a common issue. Although we know a full deep breath can actually restore balance in the tissues, move lymphatic fluid, decrease inflammation, and shut off stress hormones, we cannot get a full breath when we have a stuck and compressed ribcage.
Restoring motion at the rib cage is imperative for multiple aspects of health! The rib cage actually has 150 articulations (joints), which means there are literally hundreds of places it can get restricted.; however, with the correct exercises to restore postural integrity, it’s possible to regain expansion in these areas and reestablish function to the diaphragm. When the pelvis and spine are neutral and the body is in alignment, the ribcage can sit in a more balanced position and the diaphragm can expand and perform more efficiently. When the diaphragm cannot get air into the lungs, other muscles must compensate to help us breathe.
Can you see how breathing could be negatively affected by some of the postural misalignments illustrated below? Fix the breath and you may find you restore optimal posture! Fix your posture and you may find you restore efficient breathing!
When we inhale we bring in oxygen (02) and fresh energy. When we exhale we release carbon dioxide (C02) and metabolic waste. C02 is actually an important waste product and prevents many health problems. It’s the balance of the 02 and C02 that’s imperative to our health. Interesting to note, C02 has weight. Believe it or not we don’t sweat weight off; we lose it when we exhale. For every 10 pounds of fat lost in our bodies, 8.5lbs comes out through the lungs in the form of C02. The rest is what’s lost in sweat and urine. If you want to increase your metabolic efficiency and lose weight, getting a full deep inhale and exhale may help you meet your goals. Shallow breathing limits the range of motion at the diaphragm. The more muscles that are working efficiently in your body, the better your metabolic efficiency.
The diaphragm connects to the lower ribs and sternum in the front and the lower ribs and first three lumbar vertebrae of the spine in the back. It sits like a parachute under the heart and lungs and above the liver and stomach. Because it has fascial attachments to all these organs, it’s easy to understand how digestion, heart issues, reflux, back pain, lung problems, and immune function can be impaired. Any restriction or compression within the rib cage can influence these muscles and organs. Vice versa, muscular, digestive or lung problems can distort the ribs and cause the diaphragm to restrict.
The diaphragmatic fascia also has connections to the iliopsoas muscle, which attaches to the lumbar vertebrae as you can see in the picture above. Consequently, when proper breathing is inhibited it can actually affect the stabilization of the spine. Efficient breathing requires that the diaphragm move down for the body to stabilize the torso, spine, shoulder girdle, pelvis and lower extremities. The coordinated function of the diaphragm with the abdominal muscles is crucial for the stabilization of the spine. None of this can occur properly with faulty joint alignment and posture.
The more of your diaphragm that sits close to your ribs, the more efficient you breathe and the more stable your pelvis, spine and rib cage. This is called the zone of apposition (ZOA), otherwise known as your CORE. When your ZOA is working efficiently, your diaphragm contracts in coordination with your abs and pelvic floor to increase intra-abdominal pressure and stability. This is why power lifters hold their breath. In order to lift large amounts of weight it requires a very strong degree of intra-abdominal pressure and stability. The more aligned your posture and the more decompressed your spine, the more weight you should be able to lift without injury.
Below are detailed descriptions of various
breathing techniques and practices:
FOUNDATION TRAINING BREATHING
- With your pinkie finger on the front of your pelvis (at ASIS) and thumb on the bottom of your rib cage take a deep inhale. The distance between your pinkie and thumb should expand. As you exhale maintain this distance.
- It’s VERY important to note that as you lift the front of the rib cage away from the pelvis you are also breathing the back rib cage up from the pelvis as well. If you are not doing this, you may actually be hyperextending the spine and flaring the ribcage (as seen in the picture below), which is “not” what we are striving for.
Picture of spinal hyperextension (NOT what we are looking for)
360 DEGREE EAST/WEST BREATHING
- Try placing your fingers on the front of your rib cage and your thumbs on the back. As you inhale your should feel your thumb and all your fingers expanding and filling up the front, back and sides of your ribcage. I imagine I’m blowing up a balloon within my ribcage taking in a 360 degree breath. See if you can feel the intercostal muscles between the ribs expand with your inhale. Notice if you feel the breath equally and bilaterally. If not see if you can begin to balance the breath through the ribcage.
STATIC BACK BREATHING
- Lie on your back with your legs on a block at 90 degrees. Take a deep breath expanding the front sides and back of your rib cage. Notice if you can feel the back ribs expand on the floor. Take some deep breaths allowing the whole ribcage to expand while the lower back muscles relax. This position will simultaneously help to reduce rotation and relieve lower back tension.
ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING (NADI-SHODHANA-PRANAYAMA)
- Alternate nostril breathing, also called nadi shodhana pranayama is a great way to balance out the nervous system. With your left hand place your thumb on your right nostril and your ring finger on the left. Your pointer and middle finger can rest on your forehead. Release your thumb taking a deep inhale through your left nostril, then plug that nostril as you release your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right and plug it back up exhaling through the left. This exercise is good for the circulatory and respiratory system. It helps relieve stress and calm the mind, while balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It can help to balances the subtle energy channels and helps to maintain body temperature
- The percussion breath is taken from Chinese medicine and is a breathing technique used for endurance and adrenal fatigue. It can also help to boost the immune system. Breathe through nose for 4 short pulses. As you exhale make the “tsssss” sound for 4 pulses with the tongue behind the two front teeth on the upper palate.
- The trumpet breath is another breathing technique taken from Chinese Medicine. This exercise is good if you have been exposed to smoke, pollution or are experiencing lung congestion. Take a deep inhale and as you exhale imagine you are playing the trumpet as you purse your lips together and blow. Your cheeks will be full and your lips pursed as if you are blowing out a candle. Imagine you are playing a trumpet as you purse your lips together and blow. This exercise is used for qi stagnation in upper chest, lungs and throat
NORTHERN WIND BREATH
- One of my favorite breathing techniques taken from Chinese Medicine is the Northern Wind Breath. This breath really stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Purse your lips as if you are going to whistle. Take a deep breath then see how long you can exhale with your lips pursed making a low whistle sound like a strong wind. This breathwork can help to calm you if you are experiencing fear or insecurity. It’s good for stimulating the kidneys for grounding and cooling strong emotion.
- A similar exercise and also one of my favorites is called the healing breath. Take a deep inhale then exhale as long and slowly as possible making the “Haaaa” sound as if you are attempting to fog up a pair of glasses. Keep your gaze wide as if you are looking through the room. This exercise helps to lower heart rate, blood pressure and hypertension. It helps to release and calm strong emotions of anxiety, panic, frustration and anger.
If you are interested in an analysis to find out if your alignment could be affecting your ability to take an efficient diaphragmatic breath, as well as influencing a host of other health issues visit us at www.alignedfit.com.