“Belly Breath” is a common focus in many yoga classes. The reason this happens is because there are so many people who breathe shallowly into their ribcage only, and in an effort to improve breathing capacity, mostly teachers coach the belly breath to be the focus. But like most things, we’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum now. Too far left, then too far right. Classic humans.
When it comes to breathing we typically don’t do it too well, which is surprising, considering that it is regulated autonomously. Though, perhaps that’s why we get away with poor practices – because we don’t have to think about it.
For a majority of people who work in an office-type environment, sitting at a desk and breathing by default, has resulted in the habitual shallow and high breath that incorporates movement of the upper chest (or “costal breathing”). Generally what we see is a difficulty in recruiting the diaphragm into that action of breathing (generally termed “belly breath”). This can lead to its own series of issues, that include the tightening of the psoas – and we’re all starting to hear lots more about this muscle…the “muscle of the soul”, supposedly. Additionally, a shallow and high costal breathing pattern makes it difficult for us to access the calming effects of slow, deep-breathing.
This has lead to the majority of yoga teachers focusing on belly breath to the exclusion of costal breathing. Don’t get me wrong, belly breathing is important, but so is chest breathing! We’ve gone from one extreme to the other, and without doubt there are health implications from resting in the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Because I work inside a yoga studio I’m seeing more and more yoga practitioners/teachers coming in with the symptoms of shallow breathing, even though upon testing they are adept at belly-breath. They are unable to calm themselves effectively with breathing, but in this instance I see that costal breathing and movement of the ribcage is very limited. Movement of the intercostal muscles and connective tissue is incredibly important. The costal fascia is connected to essentially every fascial continuity and therefore kinetic chain within the body. In particular, neck, shoulder and upper back tension can be a direct result of immobility in the ribcage. The spiral line of our connective tissue also connects opposite shoulder and hip, traveling down the leg creating the potential to pass such tension to the hips and further down.
Whilst we may have freed up some movement in the deep front fascial line by getting out diaphragm moving, we’ve done so at the expense of almost all other fascial connections.
Instead we need to include all portions of our breathing apparatus in the action of breathing.
Costal breathing is just as important as diaphragmatic breathing and should be give just as much focus. Try to fill up every little space in your chest cavity and down into the belly. You should notice that right at the top of your deepest breath, some muscles in the neck will start to work. They’re essentially trying to lift the top-most ribs to create the slightest extra bit of space. At the same time you want your diaphragm to be pushing down and giving you the sensation of your abdomen expanding.
Here’s a fun .gif to help:
To understand more about the link between breathing and neck tension, continue reading: “Breathing & Moving Poorly Could Be Causing Your Neck Tension“. To check out the related topic and conceptual discussion on balance, read this: “The Idea of Achieving Balance“.