Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it’s the foundation of basically every function of the human body. Yes, it’s harder than it looks. And, yes, it’s almost always overlooked because of its simplicity; we are already born “knowing” how to do it. Right?
You’d think. But life circumstances often conspire to affect our breathing patterns in myriad ways. Not the least of which is pregnancy and the hormone bomb-drop of the early (i.e. first 12 months) postpartum period.
The good news is we have a *lot* of control over how we breathe. And learning to recognize patterns and their triggers is very valuable information. Manipulating your breathing can prevent/stop/reroute just about any circumstance imaginable. Seriously.
Today, play around with directing your breathing to different areas. Think of, or physically place your hand on, a spot and send it there. It starts out that simple. Can’t do it? Keep creating the intention and keep practicing. You just need to wake up a forgotten skill. Most likely. Barring extenuating circumstances, of course.
Here, I’m playing around with one-sided lateral rib expansion. Fun little party trick! 🤓
I know, I know, there is some lingering upper ab gripping. I am, *we* are, a constant work in progress, should you choose to seek the path of self-improvement. It’s a fun one!
Walking. Seems so innocuous, no? Notice how you walk throughout your day. Feet, arm swing, spine, hips/pelvis, breathing. The whole nine yards.
Here I first demonstrate the gait I see frequently, in women AND men. Lumbar (lower) spine rotates, thoracic (mid-upper back) spine stays still, arms going bananas in an attempt to create forward propulsion.
What we would like to see is some lovely cross body rotation (second demo), with shoulder rotating towards opposite hip as you step forward. A nice, relaxed, fluid motion. Of course, this can take some work to achieve, not the least of which is midback mobility (see my post on this from last August/September). But, in the meantime just notice what you feel and see. This is just a fun little test to see where you are at right now.
One of the things I see most often in women experiencing prolapse and diastasis recti is this lack of cross body rotation and general stiffness. And walking is the quickest way to spy this deficit. Complaints of low back pain are also often accompanied by the stiff upper body and overly-mobile lumbar spine.
The last part is a fun drill to do throughout the day to encourage more rotation. Exaggerate the rotation, and wiggle! Shake those sillies out!
Is your chest doing all the work? Belly? Can you see the muscles in front of your neck popping out with each breath? Are your sides moving with each breath? Do you feel your back expand at all?
How about the quality of your breathing? Is it fast, slow, or relaxed? Loud? Quiet? Audible to the person next to you? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? Mouth open or closed?
Fun challenge: how quiet can you make it and still breathe comfortably? Hint: you’ll have to slow it down quite a bit!
Just notice. Be curious. Note how you’re feeling right now and how that correlates to your breathing pattern. Trying manipulating it and slowing it down with a few very slow and deep breaths (in/out through the nose). Then speed it up and breathe in/out through your mouth and see how you feel. Your heart rate will likely change. Which feels better?
Breathing is the simplest and yet most essential task of daily life. Automatic yet we can manipulate it, re-train it for better or worse. It effects every single essential task of the body. There are optimal and sub-optimal ways of breathing. Everyone is different and everyone has their best way of breathing.
The pelvic floor (PF) responds to every single breath you take. Cool, huh? So if you’re stressed, your PF is going to be stressed. If you’re relaxed, your PF should be able to relax. Unfortunately, we are often way too stressed and it creates some pretty gnarly patterns down the line. So stop every now and then and take three nice and slow diaphragm lubricating breaths, let chest rise slightly, belly/back/sides expand like a balloon would, shoulders and neck relaxed. Close your eyes if you can/need to. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Exhale longer than your inhale. See if you can feel your PF descend down gently with your inhale, and if you have high kinesthetic awareness, try to feel your PF recoiling back up on the exhale. That is what happens but so many of us have lost that connection to our bodies. The more you practice noticing the better you’ll get at it.
Midback rotation! One of my favorites. I always thought of myself as being pretty mobile, and then a PT I was working with asked me to rotate my thoracic spine (mid and upper back). Um, barely anything. I cheated 💥big time💥with my lumbar spine (low back)...which is a no-no.
As I watch other humans in nature moving and doing (I can’t help it!), I see a lot to be desired in the midback rotation department, especially us mamas. When you walk, do you feel your hips swishing like the agitator in a top load washing machine? Do your arms swing? If so (yay!) does your upper body (ribs and up) move any? Take a video of yourself walking and see what you see! (Little insider info: swishing hips might look sexy, but they are really not good for you in the long run.)
I will save walking mechanics for another post (it’s a lot!) but for now, here is a great little mobility exercise you can do before you even get out of bed in the morning. Hold your top knee down and don’t let yourself cheat by allowing the pelvis to rotate. How far down can you get your top elbow at first? Breathe into those top ribs and on each exhale sink a little farther into the stretch. Do a few breath cycles and then roll forward. Repeat a few more times and then switch sides.
Note: bend at the elbow and hold your hand behind your head for the most accurate rotation. A straight arm allows you to cheat with your shoulder complex and make it seem like you have a lot more range than you actually do have.
Is one side harder? How much can you get your elbow down towards the floor without forcing but by using breath work to ease it down? Any pain or discomfort? This should be a very gentle and easy exercise. Listen to your body and only do what you can do comfortably and pain free.
Lateral rib expansion. Oh so good. I have been working on this daily since January and I finally feel like I've got some! I was a chest-breather-turned-belly breather, so it was really hard for me to break those habits and learn a new pattern. It does require an obsessive focus, for sure, but it is so worth the time.
I like to first do some focused side breathing while blocking the opposite side so that I can open up tight sides and low back. Do 3-5 breaths each side and make sure you are sending that breath where you want it! Watch out for breathing too far down into the pelvic floor. I feel a crazy stretch in my side every time so I try to do at least 5 of these through the day, but ideally up to 10 times! Then, check out that amazing lateral expansion.
Ten months ago, there was exactly zero movement out to the side. Oh sweet progress.
Now, it is daily maintenance to keep things moving in the right direction. Some days are better than others, and I notice that stress really clamps down on my sides and back so I make sure to fit in extra breath work on those days.
Breath re-training is tedious work. Real talk. Just keep chipping away at it each day and don't expect miracles early on. I like to take a lot of video to track my progress and on the days I feel frustrated with the process, I check out where I have been and where I am now and it is an instant mood lifter! I'm serious. I felt so vain at first, but truly how else will we know we have made progress along the way with these "small" things?
Try this out and let me know how it goes!
Another installment in the Breathing Basics series! I will go slightly in-depth into some of the key elements of really good 360 degree breathing. Let's get those diaphragms moving!!
Learning how to breathe into your back is hard work if you haven’t been using a great pattern (e.g. stress/shallow breathing, chest breathing, shoulder breathing). The easiest way to learn is in crocodile pose🐊
Lie prone on a firm surface and support your head with your hands or a small towel roll, legs extended, body relaxed. Breathe slowly and deeply 3-5 times, targeting your midback and lower ribs. Think “bra line” or where a heart rate monitor would sit. Dizziness is obviously a side effect of deep breathing, so keep really deep stuff to 3-5 breaths at a time, then resume quiet breathing. Do this as often as you think of it through the day. I also find this is a great way to chill out right before going to sleep.
The goal is to create the habit of breathing fully into your back, belly, and sides, and to move you out of the all-too-typical stress breathing pattern of using our chest and shoulders. Learning how to exaggerate it with deep breathing is the first step, then you scale it back to a more functional application, quiet breathing (which is what you do all day long).
At first it might be hard to feel anything moving if things are really sticky back there but use some visual feedback like a mirror or take a video of yourself so you can see. Aligning what you see with what you feel helps you to learn new tasks more rapidly. It also helps you find areas that need improvement.
The more you do it the better you will get. Then, you can start working on this in different positions. Sitting in the car or a chair are good places because of the tactile feedback from the seat back.
Did you know that full, diaphragmatic breathing can decrease blood pressure, re-frame stressful situations, improve your mood, improve your ability to recruit abdominals, relax paraspinals, and give your abs a workout, all in one sweet package?! It's true. Breathing correctly triggers a vagal response which kicks in the "rest and digest" area of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system to be exact. If you really want to nerd out, check out Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory. It will cross your eyes and blow your mind.
Being able to expand your ribs through your back is a key element of 360 degree breathing. More tips coming soon! In the meantime, breathe often and fully!!
Lateral (side) rib expansion.
Do you have it? Or is it all chest, or all belly, maybe all shoulders? Stand in the mirror and watch yourself, or take a quick video and see what it is you do.
Lateral rib expansion is so important for getting obliques to chill out and to manage intra-abdominal pressures well. Without this kind of rib mobility problems start to emerge gradually (diastasis recti, prolapse, hernias, constipation, and incontinence to name a few)...or suddenly!
Have good expansion into the sides already? 🙌 Well done! If not, all you need to do is practice! You really can't overdo good breath training. Lying on your side, knees stacked and bent at 90 degrees, and head propped comfortably is the easiest position. As that gets better and you can get 2-3 inches of lateral excursion on each side then start to challenge yourself in sitting, standing, walking/running, lying flat on your back, etc. And remember, do both sides. You may be surprised to find that one side is easier or more mobile than the other side.
It can be deceptively hard to do at first. I have done a LOT of work to get to where I am and I still can do some more work. But, it is a great first step on the road to recovery. The video above is my left side only, and it has been my hardest side since having my second baby. Left rib flare, decreased muscle tone in (everything!) left side abdominals, and really tight right side abdominals. I have had all of the muscle imbalances, I am pretty sure! This makes for maximum frustration but also maximum problem solving and using my clinical brain, which is extremely fun for me :)
Try it out and let me know how it goes! Make sure to check back for more breathing basics as we talk about all of the basic elements of good breathing. Oh, wait...you didn't know there was such a thing as "bad" breathing? This will be fun!
Runner, lifter of children, PTA, CPT, PCES, pelvic health zealot