The Gospel Truth...About Your Breath!
WARNING: This post is full of GIFs. Really special GIFs. "Special" as in I just learned how to make GIFs and I hope you find that as entertaining as I do. All of my GIFs are from the fantastic anatomy videos over at Muscle & Motion. Check them out on the old FBook. They're quite helpful.
I will now teach you how to breathe your way back to your center. Via a blog. It will be tricky, but it's basically a free alignment session and I know you like free things so hang in for the whole she-bang. Or he-bang. Or xi-bang. We-bang? Ok here we go.
Most of us do not breathe to our full capacity (and that's okay because if we did that all day long we'd probably pass out). But it's also not good to be stuck in a rut of shallow breathing, which is what many of us find ourselves in, especially after a long, stressful day of sitting at a computer! Shallow breathing is breathing into your upper chest only. It is stress breathing and it causes tension in the body. It is born out of stress and it induces stress. It's time to get in touch with a deeper, more fruitful breath that can help you in all times, stressful or not.
I am here to suggest to you that poor posture is directly related to atrophy of the breathing muscles; your breathing muscles atrophy and your upper body sinks into poor posture. If the former is true, then by strengthening the breathing muscles, your posture can improve. And thus my point: the breath is our built-in tool for better posture. How do you like them apples? I love 'em. Clearly.
Now, I'm not talking about just any breath. In order to strengthen the muscles involved in respiration, we've got to use a more focused breath than we would normally use. I will teach you this focused breath in just a moment, oh eager student of alignment. First, let's get a bit more familiar with the muscles that help us breathe. This is the moment you've been waiting for: a GIF.
In this gem of a demonstration, you can see the muscles at play as the lungs fill to capacity and the ribcage swings to accommodate them. A few muscles to note:
- THE DIAPHRAGM: On inspiration it contracts downward to make space for the lungs, and pops back up on the exhale to help expel air from the lungs. Check out how it extends down onto the front of the lumbar spine like creepy fingers. The lumbar spine is connected to the diaphragm? Wicked, I know.
- THE INTERCOSTALS: The fibers of the intercostal muscles go many different directions (like a thatched weave pattern) and have different functions. On the inhale the external intercostals contract, bringing the ribs closer to one another and expanding the ribcage. On the exhale, the internal intercostals take over to pull the ribcage back in.
- ACCESSORY BREATHING MUSCLES: These are muscles that aren't necessarily used in your everyday, relaxed breathing but get involved to expand the ribcage for a deeper, more focused breath. Note Pectoralis Major & Pectoralis Minor (underneath pec major); these muscles attach from the sternum and ribs to the humerus and the front of the shoulder blades. They help lift the sternum on the inhale. Check out how the Latissimus Dorsi moves the back of the ribcage and connects from the pelvis all the way up to the front of the humerus. And the muscles in the neck, like the Scalenes and the Sternocleidomastoid (whattamouthfull) get in on the action to help raise the upper ribcage and sternum. (In fact, sometimes those neck muscles get a little too involved. Think about a shallow, stressful breath - these accessory breathing muscles can work way too hard!)
End of anatomy part one. I will now walk you through the focused breath used in the ReAlign & YogAlign work that I do. Pro-bono, because I love you all and want to align you by any means necessary. This breath work is very safe, however, do consider that it may not be for every body. Think about your medical situation and proceed with good old fashioned common sense.
Try to envision the muscles we discussed above in action as you breathe. The technique is called a SIP Breath, mainly because when you inhale, you do so as if sipping through a straw. Before we begin, place your hands on your ribcage and just notice its movement (or lack of) as you breathe normally. OK, now keep your hands lightly on your ribs and try the SIP Inhale with me: make a strong circle with your lips, like you're going to sip through a straw (or toke on a substance...though I know you would NEVER, never toke on said substance and have no idea what I'm even referring to). Slowly, and rather noiselessly, sip the air deeply into your lungs. This creates a resistance for the air as it passes through your lips so that your lungs can inflate deeper than they normally might. And, you may notice, the inflation of your lungs expands your lower ribcage so that it swings out and lifts your sternum. You, my friend, just got a chest lift. If you didn't, book a session with me and I'll get those ribs moving. Oh, and exhale if you haven't already. Don't pass out on me, please, we're just getting started. Oh sweet lord I feel another GIF coming on...
Take a look at how the movement of the ribcage affects the spine. As the ribs expand, the whole upper torso gets a lift and the spine lengthens into its natural curvature! So a focused breath can actually bring the spine into alignment and provide a natural traction for the vertebrae and intervertebral discs (if you squint a bit you can see the traction of the lumbar spine). With just an inhale, you can provide a lift in your upper body that brings you upright and takes pressure off of your lower back and extremities. That is such good news! It's the frickin' GOSPEL, people. You can have a healthier spine just by breathing deeply. The breath is the built-in posture mechanism. It's brilliant. And we're only halfway through it!
So we've SIP Inhaled and now we must exhale, or rather, ES-Hale. After you've sipped the breath in, allowing the expansion of your ribcage to bring your spine upright, keep all that length you just gained and make a strong, loud "esss" sound through your teeth, like a snake. Did you feel your deep abdominal muscles contract? You should have. If you didn't you should really probably book a session with me. Aaaand that brings me to TWO GIFs IN A ROW (you love it)...
Dear reader, meet your Transversus Abdominis. This is your deepest abdominal muscle, the one right in front of your organs. It connects underneath your ribcage, down to your pubic bone and wraps around towards the back of your spine! Ever wish you had a built-in corset? OH WAIT, you do. So by making the strong "esss" sound on the ES-Hale, you are contracting your corset around your spine to stabilize it in a lengthened position. Plus, when you SIP Inhale the lift of your sternum also lengthens your abdominal muscles, so that when you're ready to contract them on the ES-Hale, you're creating long, lean, and VERY STRONG abdominals. We're going deeper than those Rectus Abdominis glamour muscles and getting strength and stability from the inside-out. Thus, you teach your body how to sustain upright posture using a focused breath. Good god, I love when things come full circle.
Soo, that's it. The SIP Breath is at the core (get it?) of absolutely every move in ReAlign & YogAlign. It is the most valuable and accessible tool to get you started on your path to alignment. And enlightenment, probably. Definitely. Now go out and spread the gospel throughout the land! SIP in the office! SIP in your car! At dinner! SIP! SIP! SIP!
In moderation, please. Everything in moderation. Or you will pass out.
FINAL DISCLAIMER: I'm so glad you tried this exercise with me. It makes me so happy to hear you SIP-ing through the interwebs. But to get the full effect of how this can align your body and to be sure you're practicing the breath correctly, please consider booking a session with me. It's important to get that one-on-one look at your body so that we can make adjustments as needed. Supervision from someone experienced in this work is ALWAYS recommended. Plus, my intro rates are super affordable. Get at me!