There is a common misconception that to belly breathe is “good” and to chest breathe is “bad”
In fact, there is no need for you to choose between the two. Free and relaxed breathing combines expansion of both your chest and belly in a balanced way.
Chest movement with breathing
Your rib cage has altogether ~120 articulations by the time you count all the joints within the spine, between spine and ribs, ribs and cartilages, carilages and breastbone. That’s A LOT of moving parts. So it makes sense that when you breathe your chest moves
Belly movement with breathing
When you breathe in, your diaphragm moves downwards to expand your lungs, and at the same time pushes your abdominal contents downwards. So it makes sense that your abdomen also expands as you breathe.
So what is the mix-up with chest vs belly breathing?
If you have an inefficient chest-only breath, then there is an exaggeration of your upper chest lifting upwards when you inhale. This creates an excess of tension up into your neck, shoulders and upper back. At the same time, you might have a tendency to hold tension in your belly or solar plexus.
If you have an inefficient belly-only breath, then your belly protrudes, your internal organs are unsupported, and your abdominals don’t tend to support you so well.
In both scenarios yoru lungs don’t expand as they otherwise might.
How to breathe a balanced breath
What is better is to find a way that all of those 120 rib cage joints move togetehr as you breathe. A great way to access this is by bringing awareness to your breastbone.
Your breastbone has three parts to it and two horizontal joins. The upper join is two and a half finger widths below your sternal notch – the rounded nook at the very top edge of your breastbone. It is called the “manubriosternal joint”.
Importantly, this manubriosternal joint is at the centre of expansion of your chest. This has a sense that your breastbone lengthens and that the front of your chest spreads open. This allows your upper chest to subtly move up AND ALSO allows your lower ribs to expand AND ALSO allows your to belly expand while keeping background tone.
At the same time, because your ribs connect all the way around from your breastbone at the front to your spine at the back, accessing this spreading movement at the front of your chest naturally brings more freedom around the back in your spine and ribs too.
Simple steps to a balanced breath
To begin, allow your awareness to settle into your body in a general sense, and also into your breath in a general sense. Put aside any urge to choose what your breath “should” be like. It will tend to reorganise itself beautifullly in response to your attention, just watch.
Next, drift your awarenss to your breastbone. Allow the sense that it is soft, relaxed, expansive and able to spread. Notice how the whole front of your chest wall is now able to relax.
Then, let your breath trickle in and in and in and your, without adding any particular effort with your chest, neck or shoulders.
Notice that your entire torso expands at the same time in all directions – back and front, to both sides, and (much more sublty) top to bottom.
Remember, air expands your lungs, while breath expands your whole torso. Sublty, too, your breath can expand your whole body.
Also stretch to open your chest and shoulders
It may be that the front of your chest wall, pecs and shoulders are stiff. If this is the case then to stretch them out will help you access your breath more easily. Be kind to your shoulders and avoid any pinching or pain in the joints.
Use any stretches or yoga postures you already know that open your chest and shoulders. Here are three simple ideas:
1. “Hanging” using a doorframe:
With your fingertips get a pruchase over the top edge of a door frame and let yourself hang downwards. Let your knees bend softly, keeping most of the weight in your feet, and enough in your fingertips to get a nice stretch. Let your torso soften downards out of your arms and armpits each time your exhale.
2. Gentle backbend using the back of a chair
Sitting on a chair, clasp your hands lightly on the top/back of your head. Lean back over the backrest of the chair, finding a nice stretch for the tight area between your shoulder blades.
3. “Circle of Joy” yoga flow
You can also do this yoga flow kneeling, sitting on a chair, or standing. If you are standing, instead of putting your hands on the floor in the first round, put your hands on your hips or palms on the back of your pelvic bones.
Now you can practice a balanced breath …
… that integrates chest and belly expansion by allowing your breastbone and the front of your chest so feel soft and expansive. Enjoy!
Feel free to let me know how you go with this, or to be in touch if you would like to explore this further with me one on one.