Written by Simone Holderbach of Eastside Bodywork
This isn’t just a great song! It also summarizes a relationship I see frequently in my practice. Most of the clients who come to see me due to pain issues, also have an underlying breathing dysfunction that they are unaware of.
Even though we take more than 23,000 breaths per day, most people are shallow chest breathers who’ve never learned to use their primary muscle of inhalation – the diaphragm. Being in a constant state of stress is one reason for shallow breathing. What makes matters worse, is that many people (especially women) have actually been taught to suck in their belly to appear thinner. This reinforces compensatory use of the neck musculature (such as the Scalenes) and can lead to core instability, neck pain, or headaches. Add childbirth to the mix with its slew of pelvic floor implications, and a perfect storm might be brewing.
Breathing forms the base of EVERYTHING in the body. We need a stable platform to move from, and if we don’t have that we likely develop problems in other areas of the body.
The goal is to achieve full 360-degree breathing, first filling the belly, then the lateral rib cage, and finally the posterior rib cage with your in-breath. This type of breathing creates adequate intra-abdominal pressure for optimal movement and function.
Although it sounds basic, for someone who is a chest breather this isn’t an easy thing to do, and may require a bit of coaching. It also takes repetition to get it right, and I recommend practicing 360 degree breathing as often as possible (e.g. before going to sleep or after waking up in the morning).
How is your breathing? If you’d like to learn more about how to achieve proper breathing mechanics, below is a step by step list I provide for clients to practice 360-degree breathing:
• Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground or bed.
• Take a couple of normal breaths. Don’t pay attention to any details.
• Switch to inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
• Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Continue breathing normally and pay attention to which hand moves. If it’s your upper, your are likely over-engaging your neck muscles.
• Visualize sending your breath into your belly (without making your upper hand move) as you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Imagine a balloon inflating your abdomen with every breath you take.
• Let’s add some counting to get into a good rhythm. Breathe in for a count of 3, hold your breath for a second, then breathe out for a count of 3. Do this for 10 breaths.
• Now, place your hands on the sides of your rib cage. As you breathe in, imagine expanding your ribs to the sides. As before, fill your belly first and then feel the lateral rib cage expand under your hands. Practice this for 10 more breath cycles. (If you cannot yet feel any pressure on the side of the ribs, keep your focus on breathing into your belly. You will progress to side and back breathing later)
• Finally, place your hands (or direct your attention) to the back of your rib cage. As you inhale, try to expand into this area of your body within the final moments of your in-breath. As before, picture yourself pushing the back of your rib cage into your hands. Visualize to inflate the balloon even further. This is the most challenging part and may require quite a bit of mindful practice.
You may then add progressions, such as breathing in a sitting position instead of lying down, or prolonging the exhale, but this is a good way to begin optimal diaphragmatic breathing. Notice your breathing pattern, improve it, and then notice how much better you move from a more stable core.
If you’d like support with this, or are interested in checking out additional techniques to reset, restore, and rebuild your health with results-oriented, neurology-based bodywork, you can schedule your own private session at my Kirkland practice, Eastside Bodywork.