So far we’ve looked at the activity of muscles required to expand different parts of the torso, almost like they are separate things, but a full natural breath will expand all of these parts of the torso in a co-ordinated way. The purpose of learning about these different muscles and how to activate them with exercises is to develop skill with these individual functions that will then go together into a full natural breath. The exercises in this section focus on developing this natural co-ordination. There are several different exercises we will use to do this.
For this exercise sit comfortably with your body upright, not leaning on anything. It helps to begin with to put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly to help you co-ordinate the movement and expansion of different parts of your torso. This breathing exercise will cause the areas of your torso to expand in order from bottom to top as you inhale, then contract in reverse order from top to bottom as you exhale.
Inhale through your nose and allow your abdomen to expand, continue to inhale and draw your abdomen back in causing your ribs to expand, continue to inhale and raise your shoulders as high as you can. Exhale lowering your shoulders, continue to exhale and let your ribs contract back in and your belly expand, continue to exhale and allow your belly to draw back in.
Repeat for ten or more breaths.
This breath will feel like a wave of expansion moving up and down your body. This wave like motion will activate lengthen and contract all the muscles involved in a complete natural breath. It will also massage and stimulate all of the internal organs and stimulate the nerves coming from spine as the expansion of the breath moves up and down your torso. You may be surprised at just how deeply you are able to breathe when you use all your breathing muscles in a co-ordinated way.
Whole Body Breathing – The Complete Natural Breath
The previous breathing exercise is essentially an exaggerated complete natural breath. It uses all the muscles in a co-ordinated way and makes full use of your body’s lung capacity, but in a way that exaggerates the role of each muscle. Whole body breathing is the true complete natural breath.
You can do this breath sitting standing or lying down. As you inhale feel your whole body expand outwards (this will mainly be your torso, but there will also be a very subtle expansion of your arms legs and head as well), as you exhale feel your whole body relax back inwards.
Repeat for ten or more breaths.
This expansion will tend to start in your lower abdomen and move upwards and the contraction will begin in the shoulders and move downwards, much as the wave breathing does, but will be much more subtle.
The expansion should be much like when you blow up a balloon, the stretchiest easiest to expand part of the balloon expands first before the expansion moves up into the stiffer neck of the balloon and the contraction is in reverse order.
Also ideally the expansion will be from the centre of the body outwards; this means that when the abdomen expands, it is not just the belly that expands outwards, but the lower back and sides as well. When the ribs expand, it is not just the chest that moves outwards but the back and sides of the ribs as well.
A Natural Adaptive Breath
We began our discussion of the complete natural breath by considering the example of the breathing pattern of a baby or animal at rest. We learned from the natural way that the expansion of their breathing begins in their belly, moves in to their ribs and then up into their shoulders and then the contraction occurs in reverse order, from the shoulders down into the ribs and finally into the belly.
There is something important for us to realize about this breath though. It is the natural breath of a baby or animal at REST. The demands placed on the postural muscles change significantly once the body is in motion or under load. The breathing pattern also needs to adapt to these changed demands. In particular, the abdominal muscles need to stay much firmer in order to support the spine of the body in motion or under load. This means that the abdomen is not longer able to expand as greatly as it does when the body is at rest. This means that the breathing expansion of the body naturally moves up higher into the stiffer parts of the body that usually expand less – the ribs and shoulders. The greater the movement of the body or the load it is under, the harder the abdominal muscles need to contract in order to support this and the more the expansion will move up into the upper parts of the torso.
To try to breathe with a large expansion of the abdomen when the body is moving rapidly or under significant load is dangerous and can result in injury to the spine or at the very least stiff and sore back muscles as these muscles work excessively hard to make up for the lack of support from the abdominal muscles. It is also less energy efficient, as the greater stiffness of the body caused by the contraction of the abdominal muscles allows it to support load or move through space more efficiently.
It is important to let the body adapt naturally to the demands placed upon it. The wave breathing and whole body breathing exercises in the previous section have prepared you to do this by making sure that all of the important breathing muscles in your body are working in a co-ordinated way together. When your body comes under load, it will still try to expand the easiest part (the abdomen) first, but it will only expand it as much as it can safely and efficiently before moving the expansion into the next easiest part (the ribs) and then finally into the hardest part (the shoulders).
The overall shape of the expansion in the torso will naturally change in response to the demands on the body.
- Left balloon: expansion of the torso at rest
- Middle balloon: expansion of the torso under medium load
- Right balloon: expansion of the torso under heavy load or high activity level
Over time this can lead to long lasting changes in body shape due to changes in habitual use of the muscles and adaptive changes to the structures of the body. Those who are physically at rest most of the time will tend to have larger bellies, those who regularly put themselves under significant physical load or activity levels will tend to have smaller bellies and larger ribcages and shoulders.
It is still good to retain the ability to move from greater expansion of the ribs and shoulders back to greater expansion of the abdomen though, as while the rib and shoulder expansion breathing is more efficient for intense physical activity, the abdomen expansion breathing is better for relaxation and recovery.
An exercise that will help make this natural adaptation of the breathing smooth and easy is the breathing squat.
Stand in a comfortable position with your feet about shoulder width apart. Raise your hands directly above your head with your palms forwards. Inhale through your nose as you swing your arms forwards and down, squatting as low as you can so that your fingertips brush the ground. Exhale standing back up raising your hands close by the sides of your body until they are high above your head again.
Repeat for ten or more breaths.
Practice Sessions This Week:
This week our focus is on putting it all together, so you will spend 10 minutes on each of the new exercises from this section.
- Wave Breathing – 10 minutes
- Whole Body Breathing – 10 minutes
- Breathing Squats – 10 minutes (you can take breaks as necessary if you find this exercise tiring)