Taking a breath is our first independent action in ilfe, and our last. Breath is the source of our most vital nutrient, oxygen, and the vehicle for expelling waste in the form of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the movement in the body created by healthy inhalation and exhalation massages the internal organs and mobilises the spine, providing a continuous and subtle source of wellness for the body. Breathing is both beneficial for and critical to our well-being. Unfortunately very few of us practise a healthy inhalation and exhalation as we are limited by our movement and postural habits.
Some of us are shallow breathers, only breathing into the tops of our chests in a stress related (and stress encouraging) pattern. Others of us breathe mostly into the belly, without an accompanying expansion of the rib cage. The habitual position of the rib cage will affect breathing too. Most of us know that allowing the rib cage to collapse down in front isn’t great for our breathing.
This is how many of us hold our rib cages especially while we are sitting. But what many of us don’t realise is that shearing forwards and up with the rib cage – what many of us think of as good posture
is just as bad as it tightens the back msucles and doesn’t allow the rib cage to move towards the back of the body. Both positions inhibit the optimal 3-dimensional expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The ideal placement of the rib cage is in neutral – neither dropped down nor sheared forward and up. I’m doing my best….
Our lungs are surrounded and protected by the rib cage. Unfortunately many people are trapped within the aptly named cage, with ribs that are stuck one to the next rather than pliable and able to move individually. Each rib should be able to rotate torsionally on the inbreath and then return on the outbreath, with the combined rotations of the full set of ribs creating the expansion and contraction of the whole rib cage. Many of us are limited in this small rotational movement of the individual ribs by the inflexibility of the muscles (the intercostals) that run from rib to rib, and therefore cannot achieve an expansion and contraction of the ribcage. There is often stiffness in the more superficial muscles of the torso as well, providing a further layer of immobility. To achieve a healthy 3-dimensional breath we need to have the appropriate length of both the outer muscles of the torso and the small muscles that link the ribs one to the next.
What happens when you breathe in? It’s very hard to assess your own breathing because as soon as you think about it you become conscious of it (funnily enough!) and therefore don’t breathe naturally. But do your best….Put one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your belly and breathe in and out a few times. What do you feel moving? The upper chest? The belly? Nothing at all? Hopefully not the latter! Then try to breathe into your ribs:
If you are unable to feel any movement in your rib cage, try the stretches I show in the video below. Then see if you can get a bit more movement into the ribcage. You may not get the ribs moving straight away, but don’t give up – your health and well-being will thank you for persevering!