Habits to Improve Your Breath
You are reading this right now, and so you are breathing. Breathing is at the tippety top of our hierarchy of needs – we can go for weeks without food, days without water, but only a couple minutes maximum without breathing. If you could only focus on one thing to improve every aspect of your health and wellbeing, breathing is that thing. It affects your alignment, core function, digestion, elimination, birthing, cardiovascular, immune, nervous system, energy levels, pain levels, focus, mental acuity, and emotional state. Or in other words … everything. Seriously. I’m a HUGE fan of breathing, and I hope you are too.
But as I pointed out at the beginning, you’re breathing already. So you can check that off your list, right? I mean, you’re doing it. You have to. Well, we can be assured that you are respirating enough to survive. But there are many reasons why the breath can become suboptimal, and we’re going to talk about some of them, because we can do better than merely surviving. I’m a movement nerd (as you’ve probably figured out) and so we’re looking particularly through that lens, but there are other big factors in breathing dysfunction like pathology (COPD, asthma) and trauma (physical, emotional). The good news is that the habits we’re looking at will improve breathing function no matter what your history or condition, and better is always, well, better.
Not to be a Negative Nelly, but before we can optimize your breath, we need to take a look at some of the things we need to STOP doing. These habitual actions and postures are interfering with the natural mechanics of good breathing and they are 100% under our control. But then we can get positive and ADD 3 habits that will get us breathing easier. And so to the bullet list!
Do Less: Sucking, Clenching, and Restrictive Clothing
Sucking - Listen, we all do it. Maybe you’re carrying a little more wealth around the waistline then you’re comfortable with. Maybe that abundance is not as toned as your aesthetic sense demands. Or maybe those pants are a 6 but you’re really an 8 and so you’re suffering for fashion. There are all kinds of reasons why we suck our gut in. The trouble is that we’re taking an already full container and then making even less room. Where are all your organs and guts going when you hollow out those abs? Into your back, your pelvic floor, and your diaphragm. And in some cases through it: think inguinal or hiatal hernia. The pressure in the center was so great that the ends of the container busted. The diaphragm (a really big, flat muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity) is really important to breathing, and if you’re sucking your gut in, then there’s no way the diaphragm can move.
Clenching - Like sucking your gut, when I try to talk a clencher out of clenching their muscles, they’ll usually tell me that 1) They aren’t clenching (they are, it’s just so chronic and constant that they stopped noticing) and/or 2) That’s just what engaging their muscles is. The analogy I like to use for 2 is that when we drive a car there are many speeds between not moving and redlining the engine. It’s not just all or nothing. So the same is true with our muscle engagement. Often when things have become a little disorganized in the center we will engage a bracing strategy either all of the time or whenever we feel like the center should be engaged. But bracing/clenching your muscles is like shooting a fly with a gun when a rolled up newspaper would do. If you were going to do a bicep curl with a weight would you ‘pre-engage’ or clench your biceps muscles beforehand? No. And so why do we do that with our abs (and often our glutes)? Maybe because our back hurts and we’re trying to protect it. Or maybe a physical therapist, doctor, or trainer told you this was the safe, correct way to use your muscles. Or maybe you’re (also) stressed out, and muscle tension just comes with the territory. You may find this hard to believe, but a clenched muscle is often actually weak. If the muscle can’t lengthen and shorten, there is less force producing potential (imagine pulling a bow and arrow a little way versus all the way. Which arrow flies further?). Any way you look at it, all that clenching and bracing is getting in the way of normal breath function amongst other things. So unless you’re lifting your car, please relax your muscles.
Restrictive Clothing - If you wear spanx or form shaping undergarments, I’m talking to you. If you wear pants so tight you had to do a dance to get them on and then you are restricted in your movement while wearing them, this is also for you. If you think corsets are ‘training’ your center back into some (unnatural) shape, then this is your song and I wrote it for you. And don’t even get me started on the bras so ‘supportive’ that getting into and out of them risks dislocating a shoulder. If your clothes are impeding you from moving freely in your shoulders, hips, ribcage, abdomen, spine, and hips, then they are also impeding your ability to breathe. I know you’re looking hot in those party pants. But are they worth it? Really?
What to do instead: Relax Your Belly
So we gotta let that belly out. I know. But seriously, we have to do it. If you’ve been holding it in a lot or for a long time this is going to take some practice and time. And at first people can get pretty negative in their self-talk when what they’ve been holding in starts coming back out. But remember, this is going to help everything in the long run, and that includes how your abdomen looks. A strong healthy body that functions well is going to look great, and you don’t need all that tension in your life. Period. So start slow. Try lying on your back or your belly and just … relax it. Think about your breath swelling your belly out like the Buddha. Funny gurgling sounds may happen. You may feel a little exposed at first. It’s all good. Keep at it, and when you’re ready, try letting it out some during your day. It’s a process, and you’re allowed to do it however is best for you. And remember, none of this means your center muscles aren’t working. They’re going to work better in the long run, this is all to get out of the way and let them do their reflexive work. A center body breath is the best all day every day core workout there is!
Do Less: Thrusting
Listen, thrusting has its place. Dancing, fencing, and sexy time all benefit from thrusting. It’s when we start thrusting in our habitual alignment that things get bad. We most often thrust our ribcage and head. Don’t believe me? Lie on your back on the floor, head down and legs straight. (Now check – are you sucking and/or clenching? We talked about this. Let go!) Is the bottom of your ribcage lifting up in the air, making a bigger arch under you and creating a speed bump as you slide your hand from your chest to your pelvis? That’s rib thrust, and if it’s happening while you’re lying down then it’s definitely happening when you’re standing. So you could always use muscle tension to ‘close’ your front ribs, right? Problem solved? Sadly, no – problem doubled. Closing your ribs in the front creates greater tension and uses a clench (see above). The reason for the thrust is tight muscles in your hip flexors and back. So rather than doubling down, we need to relax the tension.
Okay, stand back up. So now, have a look in the mirror. Is your head in front of you or is your ear right in line with the shoulder? So now, can you ‘drop’ your ribcage so that your bottom ribs (the ones that were poking out when you were lying down) are now flush to your pointy hip bones? Where’s your head now? If you’re like me and most everyone else, your head (and shoulders) are now well out in front of you.
The ‘chest up – shoulders back’ postural cue that so many of us know and use is actually the displacement of the ribcage to make the upper body appear less hunched. But fixing appearances doesn’t in fact fix the trouble. Tipping the whole upper torso backward doesn't change the fact that your head is out of alignment with your ribcage. Forward Head Posture – that is, when your head is forward of your shoulders and chest – can decrease your breathing capacity and function by up to 30%. That right, just your head being in front of you can create a real hit to our function. So yeah, we gotta fix that.
What to Do Instead: Drop Your Ribs and Backup Your Head
I’d love to tell you this is going to be snap, but actually, it’s going to take some brain bandwidth because changing habits takes awareness and persistence. Dropping your ribs means we’re going to stop holding them in the thrusted forward/up position. We already mentioned thrusting is tightening your back muscles and deep hip flexors, but it’s also placing the diaphragm in a tense, off-center position and turning OFF your abdominals. So dropping your ribs is going to help your alignment, core function, breathing, digestion, just to name the big ones. It’s one stop shopping, and worth the initial hassle of remembering to do it. We drop the ribs the way I described it above. Allow your ribcage to relax down until your lowest ribs are level to your hipbones, and your breast bone feels like it’s pointing less out in front of you and more toward the fly on your (relaxed fit) pants.
We talked about your forward head creating a 30% decrease in breathing function. That’s a pretty big penalty, and one we absolutely don’t have to pay. But did you know that the average forward head position of someone while texting is 4.5 inches in front of his or her shoulders? That’s a lot! So to get the ‘dot’ back on the ‘I’ as I like to say in class (the dot is your head and the I is your body, just in case I lost you) we have to back that head up! First, drop your ribs. You already were, I know, but check anyway. And then, WITHOUT LIFTING THE RIBCAGE UP begin to let the back of your head move toward the wall behind you, like you’re putting your head on the headrest of your car seat. If you end up looking at the ceiling, you accidentally bent your neck. Keep your chin down and move back again. It’s going to feel a bit ‘double chinny’ but that’s okay. Really, it is. This is going to work those muscles back into tone! Make sure you’re NOT pinching your shoulder blades together, but don’t be surprised if you feel some work happening in the muscles back there. That’s posture muscles in action, friend! Congratulations!
So, to recap, we have some things to do less of, and things to do instead. We’re going to stop sucking in, clenching, and binding up our body. We are going to relax that tension and let the breath move out of our throat and into our center body. We’re going to relax our ribcage out of military position and let our head slide back into alignment with our spine. These are changes that have an enormous impact on our body’s ability to support, function, move, and thrive in many ways. But there is no movement more important than breathing. And it is a movement. So relax and let it flow!