The topic of breathing has been coming up more lately in my day-to-day sessions with clients as well as my own reading and meditation practice. There are several methods on how to instruct breathing dating back to the practices of yoga up to the current methods in physical therapy. As a massage therapist and movement junkie I like to blend techniques I think will suit the person in front of me. Why spend our precious time focusing on something as automatic as breathing? I like to use the example of running. Everyone knows how to run. If your in danger, or in a hurry, or have been running in athletics, or for recreation, you may feel confident in your ability to move with one foot striking the ground at a time. Just because we can run doesn’t necessarily mean we run well. There is technique involved to maximize efficiency, avoid overworking muscles, and optimizing whole-body wellness. The same holds true for breathing.
We instinctively know how to breath, but over time, we compensate due to injury, poor posture, and holding physical and emotional stress. By focusing on breathing we can use our body the way it was intended, train the core, re-wire breathing patterns, and avoid health issues related to lack of oxygen and circulation.
Let’s take a look at the most common breathing fault, shallow breathing. This is where the majority of us find ourselves when preoccupied with work, our thoughts, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle. We use a very limited amount of our lung capacity, rely on our small neck and chest muscles, such as the scalenes and pec minor, instead of our primary breathing muscles, the diaphragm and intercostals. With shallow breathing we are not facilitating adequate circulation to our entire bodies’ resulting in stagnation, unclear cognition, and overworked muscles that are doing too much for their size, shape, and function.
So how do we breathe to avoid shallow breathing. I coach 3-dimensional breathing for every day use. By 3-D breathing I mean expanding your entire rib cage in all 3 directions, top to bottom, front to back, and out to the sides. Filling those spaces with breath will encourage full expansion and use of your lungs while resting and simultaneously exercise your intercostals, the small muscles in between each rib, and your diaphragm. Training these two muscle groups will also train your core. The diaphragm is fascially connected to the psoas muscle which becomes chronically shortened during hip flexion while seated.
To help build awareness to the rib cage and coach full 3-D breathing, I like to open the superficial front line of fascia creating length through the psoas complex. I can hear and feel clients begin to breathe again once there is length restored to the psoas. I also like to work in between each rib to free the intercostals which become tight and weak from disuse. Along with the ribs, I will free the pecs, lats, scalenes, traps, lats and serratus muscles which all attach to the ribs.
Try this series of 3 stretches to open up the psoas and fascia connecting to the diaphragm. Notice how your breath changes as your body creates space between your pelvis and ribs.
Try this foam rolling technique to release the lats, serratus anterior, and global rib tightness. Try slowly releasing your body into the roller and inhaling/exhaling into your ribs to create space from the inside out. Slower is better with less movement up and down. Instead, try sinking your body weight into the roller and breathing to free restrictions. Another variation is to take your top arm and reach over your head next to your ear to side-bend.
What I also like with 3-D breathing is that after a full inhalation and expansion there is room to exhale and let all of the air out of the lungs. With practice this complete exhalation trains the core to activate and reflexively allows for a complete inhalation again repeating the cycle.
Taking the time to practice 3-D breathing in the morning, afternoon, and night will help your brain and body remember the pattern and habit so when you forget and revert back to shallow breathing, you begin to notices sooner.
The other type of breath work I am a huge fan of is abdominal breathing. In Taoist meditative practice and in many yoga traditions, breathing with the belly is used to channel energy (qi or prana), activate and tone the core center, and to focus the mind. In the Complete System of Self-Healing & Internal Exercises, Dr. Stephen Chang explains what is called Crane breathing. Crane breathing is performed by first sitting or standing with an erect spine and grounded with the pelvis or feet to the floor. Inhale using only the expansion of your abdomen pushing outward and down, exhale hugging inward bringing your belly button closer to your spine. When inhaling imagine pulling the bottom tips of your lungs down into your abdomen creating space and increased lung capacity. This cycle of breathing is performed 12x, typically in the morning and night on it’s own or in conjunction with two other exercises, the deer and the turtle.
Like any muscle, the diaphragm can become fascially restricted under the rib cage similar to the psoas muscle. By performing a slow diaphragm release, motion and ease can be restored allowing for more breath capacity. The idea is to help your system establish an easier more natural breathing pattern.
There are several more styles of breath work that can be used for meditation, channeling energy, and health. I like to work towards developing a daily practice to master these styles first before adopting other techniques.