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.
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.
Use this simple Nervous System Reset to feel grounded and spacious
Autonomic Nervous System Basics
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), that is automatic nervous sytem is co-ordinated by your brain to regulate the unconscious workings of your internal organs. Think heart, lungs, digestion, kidneys, reproduction, immunity, detoxification, wound healing and so on.
Your ANS has three main parts:
Sympathetic Nervous system (SNS) — Activity, Fight and Flight.Nerves leave your central nervous system (CNS) in the area of your Cervical and Thoracic Spine
Parasympathetic Nervous System — Rest, Freeze & Dissociate. Nerves leave your CNS from the base of your skull (Vagus nerve) and Sacrum, and
Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is in the lining of your digestive tract. It interacts with your SNS and PSNS, and can also do many things independently
Your Autonomic Nervous System and how you feel
The SNS and PSNS function on a spectrum. We feel “balanced” and at the same time “grounded”, and “spacious”, and “at ease” in our bodies when these two phases are coherent, or in sync. There is a dynamic state of flux between Action and Rest. As needed, we shift into Fight/Flight or Freeze/Dissociate AND ALSO return to a dynamic balanced phase – without getting stuck in one extreme or the other.
Something simple you can do for your Autonomic Nervous System
In this 15 minute video, I talk through a series of hand placements that help to resynchronise, or “reset” your ANS.
The Full Sequence relates first your Reticular Activating System (RAS) to your Limbic System.Your Limbic system is to do with memory, learning and emotion, and RAS gear shifting smoothly between sleep, awake, alert and vigilant states. (RAS preamble 0:34/practice 1:54 | Limbic System 6:14)
The Basic Sequence follows, relating right and left sides of your brain, including limbic areas, and in turn ANS centres through your body. (preamble 11:06/practice 11:45)
If your nervous system is in a coherent state, it tends to express and discharge its activity in sequence — right brain to left brain, then in turn to heart, solar plexus, belly and pelvis.This nervous system reset helps you to resynchronise that pattern.
A big ask, I know, but what is simple has been made complicated, and what is unified has been dismantled and disjointed. When it comes to breath, breathing & the diaphragm, I have noticed for many people that this is indeed the case.
I have noticed that many people and paradigms who instruct breathing emphasise a particular perspective while missing the something of its central essence. The ‘student’ will often switch from one dysfunctional pattern of breathing to a different one, and as often as not revert to the familiar “old habit” because the new one is unsustainable, unfamiliar and unhelpful.
I find myself often bringing people’s attention to their breath, to begin to understand what they understand about their breath.
Common misconceptions include:
Diaphragm breathing is belly breathing
Diaphragm breathing is breathing into the sides of you rib cage
Belly breathing is good, chest breathing is bad
The chest should not expand
Diaphragm breathing will fill the pelvis first, then abdomen then chest – in that order
Deep breathing is good, shallow breathing is bad.
All of these ideas when examined are correct in some way, all are well meaning, but on their own are dysfunctional. Except for the idea that the chest should not expand – which is just plain wrong.
I notice that people’s awareness of where their diaphragm is in their body, what it does, and how it works varies a lot. This is not really surprising, given that it is rather interior, and that as our ultimate endurance muscle the sensation of its contraction is super subtle (in general, power muscles have an obvious sensation eg biceps or rectus abdominus, whereas endurance muscles have a quiet, subtle, almost negligible sensation eg Transversus Abdominus or subscapularis).
Nevertheless, I believe it is the birthright of everyone of us who breathes to be able to experience normal diaphragm function, and a free and uninhibited ability to breathe.
I’ve been reading recently a collection of interviews with the Breathworker Dan Brule. His work encompasses a range of disciplines, drawing on his many teachers, and combining with his own perspective and experience.
Dan highlights 3 concepts common to all perspectives on Breathwork, with which I concur:
Becoming more aware of your breathing … simply noticing it
Using the breath to relax and to release the breathing mechanism, and
Of value to notice here is the sequence: Before you can develop breath control, your breathing mechanism needs to be free … Before you can free your breathing mechanism, you need to cultivate an awareness of your breath …
Interestingly, the misconceptions I listed earlier all revolve around Breath Control.
What is assumed, consciously or not, is that the prerequisites of Breath Awareness and a relaxed Breathing Mechanism already exist. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
So we’ll return to Breath Control, later, and start at the start.
1. Breath Awareness: I challenge you to to start with this. It is at once the simplest and the most challenging. Simply notice without analysing, without making any deliberate changes, without judging, without evaluating – only noticing. The practice of noticing your breath (I use the word practice rather deliberately) will reveal much – sensations, constraints, relationships of your breath to physiological mental and emotional states, and to energy levels.
This simple practice alone of noticing can be rather valuable. As you simply notice, bringing your conscious awareness to your unconscious breath patterns, this in itself will generate changes in your breath – which you simply notice … “going with the flow”. You might notice it speed up, slow down, become smaller, become larger, soften, energise, quieten, enliven. Then you can start to play with this … ‘riding the wave’.
Practicing Breath Awareness: Dan Brule suggests 10 minutes breathing practice morning and evening (2 x 10min) plus 2 minutes 10 times a day (10 x 2min), which I rather like. This is a great general principle:
Regular extended practice + frequent small reminders = sustainable changes.
Remember to simply notice your breath, allowing your breath to take its own course.
2. Freeing the Breath Mechanism: Now this is where I spend a little time with people, so that they can understand the breath mechanism enough to experience what it means to breathe freely; and put to rest existing misconceptions and poor habits. Dan Brule in his interviews simply speaks about taking a deep breath, and letting it go – the emphasis being on the letting go – without controlling the pace of the exhale, neither slowing it down nor squeezing it out.
The other aspect I’d like to explore here is to do with having a relaxed inhale – with neither effort nor constraint. But first a little about the anatomy of breathing.
2 (a) The Breath Mechanism: includes includes the rib cage in its entirety – thoracic spine, ribs, cartilages and breastbone in 3 parts (around 120 articulations all up, depending how you count them) – plus the diaphragm and lungs. Left to its own device, free from any restriction inhibition or dampening, the diaphragm expands the entire rib cage, which in turn inflates the lungs contained therein.
2 (b) Your Diaphragm: is a thin muscle layer shaped like a dome, parachute, of jelly fish, if you like. The central top area of the diaphragm is tendon – pliable but inelastic. The outer area is muscle, its fibres curving over and downwards to its lower edge. The images above show its location from the front, side and back.
To orient yourself to your own diaphragm:
First, find find the lowest tip of your breastbone, and then with finger pads of both hands trace the lower edge of your rib cage down and out and around the cartilage edge, continuing around your side and back tracing the lowest floating rib to where it meets your backbone. You have now traced the lower “hem” of your diaphragm where it attaches inside the lower circumference of your rib cage.
Then, close your left hand and place it in the centre of your breastbone, this is the position of your heart – which rests atop the centre of your diaphragm. So at the undersurface of your heart-hand is the central tendon of your diaphragm internally. From here the muscle fibres of the diaphragm curve over and down internally to meet the lower edge of your rib cage.
So what does your diaphragm do, and how??
Recall that the diaphragm alone left to its own devices will expand the entire rib cage – all 120 articulations. It does this through a combination of two actions:
the upper fibres of the muscular part of the diaphragm pull on the central tendon – drawing it down and elongating your heart & throat structures. At the same time…
the lower fibres of the muscular part of the diaphragm pull on the lower edge of the rib cage, which lifts and expands its entire perimeter (which you just traced)
The expansion that the diaphragm creates, then, is:
An even expansion of the chest and belly
An expansion side to side and front to back
A lengthening of the thoracic spine, and, if there are no restrictions in the neck or back, a lengthening of the entire spine from head to tail
In other words, and expansion of the entire torso
… Air expands the lungs, and breath expand the entire torso
To orient yourself to your own Diaphragm breath:
Begin by allowing your awareness to settle into your breath, and for your breath to settle into its own rhythm.
allow a little time for this
Bring your awareness to the shape of your rib cage, abdomen and backbone. In turn, bring your awareness to the entire interior space within.
allow a sense that this entire interior space is spacious, and “at ease”
Now if you allow your breath to relax out, and you wait just a little, your breath will start to find its own way in.
Allow your breath to trickle in, without adding any sense of exterior “muscular effort”.
To increase volume, simply allow more time (rather than effort).
For a little more volume try this exercise. As your breath trickles in and meets the first sense of elastic resistance, pause. Suspend your breath for a moment before you allow your breath to again relax out.
To explore more volume again, as your breath trickles in and meets the first sense of elastic resistance, pause. Suspend your breath here for a few moments. Wait until your breath is able to find a bit more space which it might occupy. Let your breath in further.
all the while, avoiding adding any exterior ‘muscular effort’.
Play with each of these different stages. Return to a resting breath as you wish. Simply simply noticing your breath and allowing it to find its own rhythm.
notice any changes in your breath.
You can practice this any time you are awake Practicing whilst lying down simplifies things, at least to begin with.
Other helpful hints:
Bring your awareness to your breastbone, collar bones and the whole front of your chest wall. Allow it to feel ‘soft’ and ‘at ease’.
While lying down, bring your awareness to the contact between your body and the surface you are lying on. Allow it to rest there.
Notice the words – awareness, wait, suspend, trickle, relax, and allow. Allowing the breath is a key sensation here – rather than any words like do, push pull, make. The idea is to foster the ability of your body to relax around the expansion of your breath, and also to allow your breath to find otherwise hidden or forgotten places.
Start now, practice consistently, notice change
In my next post/s about breath, breathing & the diaphragm, I’ll continue with more strategies for relaxing your breath mechanism, highlight other nuances of a complete diaphragm breath, and explore different ways to play with breath control.
But for now start at the start. enjoy!!
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