Are your current breathing practices helping you stay fit, or contributing to back pain, shoulder pain or neck pain?
Do you know if your current breathing habits are helping your posture or only making it worse?
We breathe to keep us alive, but oftentimes we take our breathing habits for granted. Breathing is normally on autopilot. We take in air the moment we are born, and the last thing we do is exhale when we die. Every second of the day of our entire life, our heart pumps life’s blood through our system, and our lungs and diaphragm work together to provide nourishing oxygen to our blood and cells to help keep us alive.
It’s good to know that we don’t have to think about every breath to stay alive, but improved breathing habits have many added benefits to keep us healthy.
Pilates Breathing Tips:
Dianne Miller, my Pilates mentor and dear friend, made this remark to me about breathing - and it was radical idea that stuck in my mind and helped me focus on better breathing habits to develop good posture, aid with the beneficial action of breathing to assist with compression/decompression of the spine, improve Pilates exercise technique, and help minimize both lower back pain and neck pain.
“Breathing elongates the natural curves of the spine.”
This is a really important principle in learning to let the breath assist the body for better posture and functional movement.
“Breathing elongates the natural curves of the spine.”
There are 3 Distinct Curves of the Spine:
1. Lumbar Curve – An arch in the lower back. (Ideally with the apex of the arch at L3 –the belly button.)
2. Thoracic Curve – A rounded, flexed upper back. (The curve of the shoulder blades rests on the curve of the ribcage that is attached to the curve of the spine.)
3. Cervical Curve – An arch in the neck. (Which mirrors the arch in the Lumbar spine.)
These three curves help in maintaining balance and serve as shock-absorbers as we move, sit, stand, walk, and run.
What Happens If These 3 Curves Are Not Functioning Properly?
Our sense of balance is compromised, and there can be unnecessary stress placed on other parts of our torso, neck, and back. Movement can be restricted, and injuries can result.
My Poor Posture Story:
I used to be a gymnast and dancer. I had this big arch in my lumbar spine in fact most of my back was in an arch, rather than 3 properly balanced curves. This unnatural long arch created strain on my lower back. As strong as my abs were, they were never strong enough, or could work hard enough for me to avoid back pain. And because my thoracic curve was in extension rather than in flexion, it restricted my breathing making me a very shallow high-chest breather.
With these posture problems, I experienced chronic low back pain, chronic neck pain, and my shoulders were up around my ears most of the time. Usually by Friday afternoons, I had a terrible headache from trying to hold things together with tense, stiff muscles holding my posture from the wrong places. In addition, I also suffered a voice injury – due to poor posture and breathing habits. I was holding my head forward on my neck, which restricted free-flowing air through my windpipe. And I’m not an isolated case…there are a lot of people out there who exhibit similar posture habits!
Any deviations from the three natural curves, balanced, and changing directions at the right points and you will have a greater risk of suffering from back pain and neck pain.
Any posture that does not “Ride the Breath” to extend the natural curves of the spine during inhalation, and permits the back bone to constrict closer together during exhalation, is not gaining the benefits from functional breathing habits for improved health.
What Are Your Breathing Habits?
Become aware of your breathing habits: Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself breathe. Where does the air go when you inhale?
• Into the Belly?
• Into the Back, and Lower Ribs?
• Into the Chest?
If the air goes into the belly when you inhale – there is no support in the front of your Lumbar Curve. This puts more stress on your lower back. Your back may be arching more on your inhale causing your back bones to come closer, producing compression instead of decompression when you inhale AND even more compression when you exhale. Your spine is suffering!
If the air goes into your chest when you inhale – you are extending more your Thoracic Curve, your whole back is probably arching more. The result: more tension in your mid-to-lower back and a reduced ability to fill your lungs with air. Your breathing will be fast and shallow, with over-worked back muscles, and abdominals not functioning well enough to give you more balance and support. Your shoulders will likely elevate increasing tension in the neck and shoulders, and your head will probably be out of balance with the rest of the spine.
Knowing how to inhale to fill the back, bottom ribs first, then maintaining to fill the lungs up through the back of the torso is vital for better breathing and improved whole-body health.
This is called Posterio-Lateral Breathing. Traditionally, this is a Pilates-style breathing technique. Your breathing goes into the back and sides of your ribcage.
Since the ribs are attached to the spine, if you start filling air at the bottom first – the ribs will elevate and separate as the air goes in. The result is that your inhale will pull each segment of the spine apart, providing more space between each joint, decompressing pressure on the spine.
Using this Posterio-Lateral/Back Rib Breathing technique will allow your ribcage lift up off the hips while sustaining and lengthening the natural curves of your spine. With practice, this helps improve body posture, decreases back pain, and can help improve range of motion for functional movement of your spine.
Observe Your Shoulders, Neck, and Head While You Breathe:
Take a look at your head and neck when you breathe in.
• Do you see muscles in the front of the neck grip and stiffen as you inhale?
• Do your shoulders rise up around your ears as you inhale?
• Does your head get closer to your shoulders when you take in air?
• Or do you feel your neck and head lifting and lengthening up and away from your shoulders?
If any of the first three of these occur as you inhale: tightened neck muscles, elevated shoulders, head closer to your torso as you breathe in – you are jamming your head into your body with every breath!
Make every effort to inhale up your spine with a relaxed neck and continue lifting and lengthening the spine up all the way to the base of your skull. By doing this, it may feel like your head is floating as you inhale. The shoulders might rise a bit, but not because they are actively lifting, but because when the ribs separate and lift, the shoulder blades are riding along on the lift of the ribcage.
To help lift and lengthen the neck and head up for better posture as you inhale, drop or pull the shoulders down from the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. The shoulders pulling down make a great anchor point to control lifting and elongating your spine during both inhalation and exhalation. You might even notice a stretch in your neck if it’s stiff. By keeping your head up, floating and lifting at the top of your spine, and relaxing your shoulders and neck muscles down, you can experience a major reduction in neck pain. When I figured this out for my neck, breathing, and posture habits all those Friday afternoon headaches totally vanished!
Knowing how to elongate the natural curves of your spine on every inhalation that you do, and sustaining good core support during exhalation, will definitely help you improve your posture and enjoy a much healthier neck and back.
This posterio-lateral Pilates breathing technique is a must-have breathing habit for every-day health. Making some changes in your breathing habits probably won’t happen overnight! Practice consciously being aware of your breathing habits every day. Make an effort to apply this technique even just with 5-10 breaths, once or twice a day to give as much attention as possible to the lengthening of your spine, maintaining good belly support, with relaxed shoulders, and the feeling of your head and neck floating up tall. Gradually, you will notice that you are doing this automatically without thinking about all the little things needed for great breathing habits.
It’s easiest to practice this healthy breathing habit while you are standing still or sitting. Then progress to practicing your posterior-lateral breathing while you are on the move and doing your workouts. Practice this with everything you do: Pilates, Yoga, walking, running, dancing, weight lifting, swimming, cycling, and even doing household chores – and in time you will begin to notice how much better breathing habits are helping you maintain good posture and enjoy a healthier life! Better breathing habits can be your new best friend for better health!
Good breathing habits are the first step in improving posture and whole-body health. For more tips and techniques to quickly evaluate your posture and make improvements to help your body feel better, check out the helpful, easy-to-use posture improvement resources in Posture Principles for Health (workbook & DVD), available at http://www.centerworks.com/store/posture-principles-for-health/
Aliesa George is the founder of Centerworks® Pilates. She is an author, workshop presenter, and mind-body health expert with more than 25 years of experience designing solutions for health improvement. Aliesa has created a wide variety of products focused on Pilates, Foot Fitness, the Mind-Body Connection, Stress-Management, and Whole-Body Health. She enjoys helping others discover the connection between thought and action to get positive results and achieve goals for a healthy mind, body and spirit!