For just a moment now I would like you to really pay attention to your breathing. Close your eyes and take a slow, deep inhalation. As you do, I want you to really notice what changes happen to your body as you breathe in, and as you breathe out.
Our body, in all its brilliance, comes with three mechanisms for expanding the space in our chest in order to get air into our lungs. This means that if through injury or position one method is unavailable, we have two built in backup systems.
The primary driver of inhalation is the intercostal muscles contracting to directly expand our ribcage.
Belly breathing is a secondary method for bringing air into the body. The diaphragm is a large and powerful muscle, and its contraction pulls the lungs downward in order to create the negative pressure that allows us to breathe. As the diaphragm contracts, it pushes down into the abdomen, causing the belly to expand outwards.
We have a group of muscles called the scalenes in our neck that can lift the ribcage upwards and expand the top section of it a bit, allowing short shallow breaths. Breath that is driven primarily by the scalenes tends to be short and rapid and often associated with anxiety.
Ideally all three breathing methods should work together to allow a robust and deep breath, but as in most things few people are breathing ideally. Many of my clients are primarily belly breathers, keeping their ribcage stationary as their diaphragm drives the breath. These clients also frequently complain of core weakness, shoulder pain, or have significant curvature in the thoracic spine.
This is why I almost always teach breathwork to my clients. Retraining the breath to be primarily driven by ribcage expansion brings constant motion to the ribs and thoracic vertebrae, parts of our body that are frequently rendered immobile by lack of use.
I’m going to ask you to pay attention to your breath once again. This time place your hands around your lower ribcage, and as you breathe in feel the bones expand three dimensionally into your hands.
Close your eyes, and just breathe. And notice.
What sensation do you feel in your spine as you breathe this way? How much motion can you feel in your ribs. Did you notice your sternum, the hard bone right above your heart, open up and move a bit? And how did your belly respond?