Years ago, as an athlete and postural therapist I believed that to achieve profound structural changes 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 address postural imbalances. I can now confidently say otherwise. After learning various breathing techniques, not only has my alignment significantly improved, but pain symptoms have all but disappeared, my health and metabolic efficiency are at their 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, which is why efficient breathing is extremely beneficial. These days, diaphragmatic breathing has become widely practiced among a variety of methods and exercise modalities. The truth is, when we look back at most ancient practices such as Yoga, TaiChi,and Qigong, breathing has always been a central focus.
Efficient diaphragmatic breathing not only affects posture, endurance, and mobility, but also significantly influences the nervous system. Taking a full deep breath helps to turn off the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and recharge the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). 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.
Many of us experience excessive stress, which can lead to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. In addition, technology, driving, and too much sitting, can cause muscular tightness in the ribcage. Although we know a full deep breath can restore balance, move lymphatic fluid, decrease inflammation, and shut off stress hormones, we cannot get a full breath if we have a stuck and compressed ribcage.
Restoring motion at the rib cage is imperative for multiple aspects of health. The rib cage has 150 articulations (joints), which means there are literally hundreds of places where it can get restricted. When the pelvis and spine are not in alignment, the ribcage sits in a dysfunctional position and the diaphragm may be unable to perform efficiently.
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 or 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 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 carries 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 is expelled through the lungs in the form of C02. The rest is lost in sweat and urine. If you want to lose weight and increase metabolic efficiency, getting a full inhale and exhale may help you meet your goals.
The diaphragm connects to the xiphoid process at the sternum in the front, laterally at the lower ribs and to the top 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 with diaphragmatic dysfunction. Any restriction or compression within the rib cage can influence these muscles and organs. Conversely, muscular, digestive or lung problems can distort the ribs and cause the diaphragm to restrict.
The diaphragmatic fascia also have connections to the psoas muscle, which attaches to the lumbar vertebrae (see picture below). Consequently, when breathing is inhibited, it can affect the stabilization of the spine. Efficient breathing requires the diaphragm to move down for the body to stabilize the torso, spine, shoulder girdle, pelvis, and lower extremities. The coordinated function of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles is crucial for the stabilization of the spine.
The diaphragm has two surfaces: thoracic and abdominal. The thoracic diaphragm has contacts with the membranes of the heart and lungs. The abdominal diaphragm is in contact with the liver, stomach, and spleen. There are openings within the diaphragm to allow structures to pass through such as the vena cava, esophagus, vagal nerves, and descending aorta. When the diaphragm contracts on the inhale, the thoracic cavity expands. The diaphragm works with the abdominal muscles, assisting in increasing intra-abdominal pressure. This is necessary for actions such as defecating, and urinating. In some cases, by restoring alignment and the proper function of the diaphragm, you will simultaneously improve function of the pelvic floor musculature and resolve issues around constipation or frequent urination.
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). When your ZOA is working efficiently, your diaphragm is able to contract in coordination with your pelvic floor and abdominal musculature increasing stability. Hence why power lifters hold their breath to lift large amounts of weight.
Most of us take breathing for granted, as it’s a natural autonomic nervous system response, but by becoming conscious of our breathing patterns many physical as well as mental health issues can be resolved.
To learn more about the breathing techniques listed below,
contact Lisa Decker at Aligned Fitness
Please use caution if you choose to attempt these practices on your own.
Do not practice if you have any known health issues or while driving
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. You can also try this lying on your back while feeling the back of your rib cage expand and press toward the floor with each inhale.
This practice increases respiratory efficiency and helps increase mobility in the diaphragm. The breath should be soft not forced. Take a breath through your nose and hold your breath as you count to 10 out loud quickly and repetitively. As you feel you are losing the breath begin to count in whispers until your voice trails off completely. When all the breath has been expelled repeat
FOUNDATION TRAINING BREATHING
With your pinkie finger on the front of your pelvis (at the ASIS) and your 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 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)
STATIC BACK ABDOMINAL CONTRACTIONS
This exercise is taken from The Egoscue Method. Lie on your back with your legs on a block at 90 degrees. Take a deep breath into your belly. Exhale all the air out bringing your belly to the floor. Hold the breath and contract the abdominal muscles as if you are putting on a corset. Relax and repeat. This exercise will simultaneously help to reduce rotation in the body while releasing the paraspinal muscles and relieving lower back tension.
FAN THE FIRE BREATH
Fan the fire breath is an ancient practice designed to stimulate one’s energy. Begin this practice slowly, as it can make you dizzy. Take a breath through the nose into the stomach. Feel your abdomen expand as your chest stays relaxed. Perform a sharp, quick exhale through the nose/mouth as you feel your abdomen pull in toward your spine. Continue this expansion and contraction for 10 quick breaths over time working up to a minute. Once you complete the first round slow the breathing to a 5.5 second inhale/exhale through the nose. Fan the fire breath stimulates, activates, and heats up the body. It’s great for metabolic conditioning.
WIM HOF BREATHING
Close your eyes and become conscious of your breath. Inhale for 2 counts through the nose and exhale for 2 counts out the mouth. Keep the breath fast and consistent without pause as you feel the breath circle through you. Move the breath through the belly and chest then exhale without force 30 times. Inhale one final time as deeply as you can then exhale and hold the breath. The goal is to hold the breath for at least one minute. When you feel the urge to breathe again draw in another long inhale and hold it for 15 seconds. Repeat this cycle 3 times.
The percussion breath is a breathing technique used to improve endurance and combat 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 prescribed 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 as you exhale slowly and let the air out of your pursed lips. This exercise is used for Qi stagnation in upper chest, lungs, and throat
NORTHERN WIND BREATH
One of my favorite breathing techniques is the Northern Wind Breath. This breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. 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 breath practice helps to calm the nervous system. It’s good for stimulating the kidneys and for grounding and cooling strong emotions such as fear or insecurity.
A similar exercise and another 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 space around you. This exercise helps to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and hypertension. It releases and calms strong emotions related to the heart such as anxiety, panic, frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed.
ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
(Nadi Shodhana Pranayama)
This exercise helps to balance energy flow through the two nostril channels. Ida refers to the left side of the body (right brain). It’s cooling and calming and more common when resting. Pingala refers to the right side of the body (left brain). It heats and activates and is more common when working and in action. This exercise helps to achieve mental, emotional, and physical equilibrium. Place you left thumb on your left nostril and ring finger on the right. Close your right nostril and inhale for 5 seconds through the left. Then close the left and exhale through right. Now take an Inhale through the right and exhale left – alternating. This exercise helps to balance the channels and brain hemispheres. It also helps to balance the nervous system, relieve stress and anxiety, and decrease blood pressure.
BUTEYKO CONTROLLED PULSE
This exercise helps train the body to breathe according to its metabolic needs. For “most” of us this means breathing less. This technique is a good measure of respiratory progress. Place a watch with a second hand nearby. Inhale and slowly exhale through the nose then pinch nose and hold while starting the second timer. Relax the body in this breath restriction technique. Be sure the next breath you take following the hold is soft and controlled. If it’s not, give yourself 20 minutes before trying again. Ultimately, you want to be able to comfortably hold your breath for 45 seconds to 1minute but never to a point where the next breath feels like you’re gasping for air. Measure your controlled pulse at least once a day until you reach a minute. Give yourself plenty of time for adaptation.
THE CONSCIOUS BREATHING ANCHOR
Inhale for 3 counts through your nose then exhale for 6 counts through the nose and repeat. This exercise boosts C02 tolerance without breath holding. Imagine an anchor that sinks low and deep into the body with each exhale. Do this while prolonging your exhalation
DECONGEST YOUR NOSE
Exhale a soft breath through your mouth with both nostrils pinched shut. Keep your mind off the breath holding. Begin to shake your head up and down or side to side. When you begin to feel a hunger for air take a slow controlled breath through the nose. Breathe a few rhythmic slow breaths before trying again and repeating many cycles
YOGIC BREATHING / WAVE BREATHING
Place your hands over your naval and slowly breathe into your belly feeling it expand and contract. Breathe soft and deep through the nose. Next move the hands up to the ribs and breathe deeply into the front, sides, and back of the ribcage. Finally move the hand over your collar bone as you imagine the chest spreading and withdrawing with each inhale/exhale. Now place a hand on your stomach and a hand on your chest as you connect all 3 sections. Inhale from the stomach to the rib cage and up to the collarbone, then exhale from the collarbone to the ribcage and back to the stomach. Feel the undulation of the breath as it rises and falls. Visualize the breath moving through you like a wave. Tune into your senses as you visualize, feel, and hear the breath rise and fall.
This technique has been used by navy seals to create a state of calm. Inhale through the nose for 4 counts – hold your breath for 4 counts – then exhale for 4 counts – and hold for 4 counts before repeating.
BOX BREATHING (Extended Variation)
This technique assists with functional sleep patterns. Inhale for 4 counts – hold for 4 counts – exhale for 6 counts – and hold for 2 counts.
CONSCIOUS BREATHING (Carbon Dioxide Training)
This technique works longer exhales to assist with relaxation. It increases C02 to improve circulation. Inhale for 3 counts then exhale for 9 counts before repeating.
4– 7– 8 BREATHING
This technique was made famous by Dr. Andrew Weil. It places the body into a state of deep relaxation. Inhale for 4 counts – then hold for 7 counts – and exhale for 8 counts while making an extended “wooosh” sound as if you are blowing out a candle. Repeat many times.
To learn more about these breath-work
techniques, contact Lisa Decker at
408-691-2829 or [email protected]
For a postural 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
M.S. Human Movement
Certified Postural Alignment Specialist (PAS)
Certified Foundation Training Instructor
Certified in Medical Qigong (CAMQ)
CES, PES, CPT