It’s a common practice today to place significant emphasis on belly breath, or more appropriately termed “diaphragmatic breathing”. I anticipate that much of its focus is the result of the popularization of yoga. In and of itself it’s a great practice to ensure that your [thoracic] diaphragm is moving well and aiding in a natural breathing cycle, but as with many things in life, leave it to humans to take it too far.
I say “too far” because we’ve now become quite extreme with our breathing habits and we commonly focus on belly breath to the exclusion of costal breath. The focus has shifted in this direction because far too many people in our modern society can only breathe comfortably into their ribcage, and cannot direct their breathing with any significant diaphragmatic breathing. We’ve gone from one extreme to another.
The issue with jumping so far to the other end of the spectrum is that now I’m commonly seeing patients with very limited ability to perform costal breathing. And this is a problem for many different reasons:
- First and foremost our ribcage is a very important component of our breathing apparatus and the intercostal muscles are there for the important purpose of helping to breathe deeply. If we do not use these muscles they atrophy over time, which means it becomes harder and harder to get them involved again the longer we leave it.
- When we limit the movement of certain muscles not only do that atrophy, they get tighter. Essentially by not using them we build tension.
- Tension in the intercostals is one of those things that can create significant downstream effects throughout the body. Not only will this tension lead to greater mid-back discomfort and pain, but from there it will travel both superiorly and inferiorly (up and down) the back of our body. The intercostals and surrounding musculature are all part of other kinetic chains and fascial trains, and so we can see the effects of poor costal breathing all the way down in the feet.
- Posture is restricted, and of course this can create innumerable issues along with aches and pains. Let’s do a little experiment together right now – take the deepest possible breath you can… Then do it one more time… Notice how you automatically sit up taller and achieve better posture? Yes, a full breath that utilizes the full breathing apparatus helps you develop better posture. And we know how important good posture is.
So what does this mean? It means that we have groups of people at two ends of the spectrum – those of us who cannot properly utilize diaphragmatic movements to breathe, and those of us who can no longer use the intercostals effectively to breathe fully.
As a quick note here on how to determine your own restrictions, and for any practitioners of massage out there, you can do this:
- Lie supine (on your back) get someone to gently rest one or both hands on your chest and supply a portion of body weight gradually, like the picture on the right. If you find it very difficult to breathe, then chances are you’re more of a costal breather and your diaphragm could use some more training.
- Lie prone (on your front) and have someone gently apply some pressure to your low back (above the pelvis, below the ribs and to the side of the spine), just as demonstrated in the picture here. If you find that this greatly restricts the amount of air you can breathe, then we have the opposite answer and you’ll need to workout your intercostals a little more.
- And if neither one of those restricts your breathing, then you win a sticker!! Good job!
So what do we do with this information? Regardless of the areas of restriction we have, the best practice is 3-part breath. Perhaps spend a little more time in the areas you need more work on but basically you want to gradually inhale into your lower abdomen, then include the lower rib cage and then complete the breath by expanding the upper rib cage. Then reverse down through those three parts. I also find it to be a beneficial practice to reverse the process entirely – starting with your upper chest, then lower rib cage and then belly last. It’s always good to change it up and you may notice one challenges you more than the other (do that one more…).
Here’s to happy, full breathing and all the postural and tension-free benefits it provides!
Continuing the conversation on breathing and neck tension, how they’re linked and what you can do about it over here: “Breathing & Moving Poorly Could Be Causing Your Neck Tension“.