Humans can survive for a few days without food, water, or sleep. However, if we deprive our bodies of air, we die in a matter of minutes. That’s how important breathing is. Breathing gives us life. We don’t have to think about breathing, yet we can choose to change how we breathe just by thinking about it.
As we move through the world, we pick up physical, mental, and emotional habits that eventually shape how we sit, stand, walk, and breathe. And our once-natural breath can become inefficient and perpetuate states of stress, poor posture, and muscular imbalance.
Good news: We can learn to restore our natural breath and thereby bring balance to our nervous system, improve our alignment, and optimize our core support.
Natural breath is initiated and dominated by the diaphragm and involves a small amount of engagement from the upper body. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located in the lower rib cage; it separates the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity. When inhaling, the diaphragm contracts and the mass of the diaphragm descends, displacing the contents of the abdomen. This is commonly known as a belly breath.
Ideally, this displacement is evenly distributed throughout the front, the sides, and even the back of the abdominal cavity and lowest ribs. Such three-dimensional expansion ensures that the entire core cylinder works eccentrically to create intra-abdominal pressure and share the force load between the upper and lower body. In this way, the diaphragm and the act of breathing become a central element to posture and coordination. Let’s try one now…
– Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor. Feel the full contact of the soles of your feet into the earth.
– Place both hands on your belly and breathe in through your nose. Allow your stomach to receive the breath. Don’t force or bear down. Allow the breath cycle to happen 3–5 times.
– Now slide your hands around the sides of your waist and allow your waist to receive the breath. This may require a little more mental direction, but still, see if you can approach it from a feeling of allowing instead of doing.
– Lastly, bring your hands to your lower back without flexing the spine (no slumping!). Feel the breath move into these spaces, too. A good diaphragmatic breath expands 360° into the abdomen and lowest ribs.
A soft, calming breathing exercise, this has been used for centuries to center the mind. Also, as it activates the vagus nerve, the nervous system is brought into a parasympathetic state. From this more receptive calm state, you will be able to have a more profound “felt” sense of your body, and your overall body awareness will increase.
There is an additional aspect of diaphragmatic breathing that is sometimes ignored or misunderstood but of crucial significance. Briefly, the sternum slightly rises and moves forward as the lungs expand and push outward, widening the ribs across the upper chest. Simultaneously, the scalene muscles minimally contract to lift the first rib. As a result, the entire thoracic cavity lengthens in both directions – downward toward the pelvis and upward toward the heart.
I call this an “optimal diaphragmatic breath.”
Let’s try it:
– Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
– As you breathe in, allow your belly and lower ribs to receive the breath three-dimensionally, followed immediately by the sternum floating slightly forward and up.
– See if you can do this without the help of your shoulders. The shoulder girdle and neck stay quiet and relaxed. Using a mirror can help you see if your shoulders are elevating.
– Visualize a long balloon expanding both down toward the pelvis and up toward the heart on the inhale. Doing this creates verticality in the thoracic cavity, providing the full-body benefits of diaphragmatic breathing while simultaneously mobilizing the ribcage.
– If you think you are elevating your shoulder girdle, go back to the 360° breathing. Change takes time.
Optimal diaphragmatic breathing is the basis of a healthy and functional breadth. Weaving it into a Pilates session or any movement practice facilitates a successful, safe, and embodied workout.
From this technique, you can explore other breathing techniques to influence core support, harness intra-abdominal pressure, improve pelvic floor health, encourage the release of the upper psoas, and much more!
Proper breathing is just the beginning!