Deep Breathing Techniques, Lesson 3 of 6
The exercises offered in this blog follow on from my previous article, “Deep Breathing Techniques: The Diaphragm Is the Engine“.
As we discussed, the chest should not rise and fall while breathing. Many of my students have commented, “Surely, if the chest doesn’t move it’ll become stagnant and blocked”! Well, just because the chest doesn’t rise and fall doesn’t mean it does not move! The classic Chinese phrase is, “One part moves, all parts move.”
Image © iStockphoto.com/Eraxion
Physiology of the Deep Breathing Technique: The Ribs Act as Bellows
Once your diaphragm is engaged and you’re able to keep your chest still, you can move on to the next phase of deep breathing techniques. During the in-breath, the diaphragm not only descends, but also spreads out horizontally. Since the diaphragm is connected to the inside of the base of the ribcage, it naturally expands as your lungs fill with air when you breathe in.
Now if you let the chest rise, the rest of the ribcage will remain dormant. But, if you keep the chest still, the internal pressure will expand and open the sides of your ribcage all the way up to your armpits. This expansion sideways allows the ribs to act like a bellows, drawing in air and blowing it out again.
The ribs are attached to the spine at the back and the sternum (breast/chest bone) at the front (except for the bottom two ribs that “float” and only attach to the spine). So, as you breathe deeply into the diaphragm, filling up your lungs without raising your chest, the internal pressure physically moves the ribs sideways. This sideways movement stretches ligamental attachments within the spine, as well as the sternum and chest.
The sideways opening of the ribcage generates a really effective massage for the liver and heart while creating an incredible flexible ribcage. This occurs because the ligamental connections within the ribs themselves, the spine and the sternum are stretched and relaxed during internal, deep breathing.
This stretching action simply doesn’t happen in normal upper chest breathing as most people breathe. It’s important to progressively develop the flexibility and opening in the ribcage because it drives the release of long-term, bound tension during breathing. When you increase the range of motion in the ribs, you also increase the range of motion in your internal organs, especially your heart.
When the ribs get too stiff from lack of motion, the functioning of your internal organs also diminishes because their natural plasticity is compromised. Many people mistakenly believe that declining health is caused by aging, which isn’t the whole story. What is more accurate is that over time—internal organs (the real determinants of health)—become less efficient as they move less and less and do not enjoy the same blood flow after years of stagnancy. So the smooth, gentle and continuous movement of your ribcage while breathing is essential to your overall health and vitality.
Deep Breathing Practice Instructions
Start by reviewing diaphragm breathing techniques for a few minutes to engage the diaphragm, release your nerves and prepare for the additional technique of gently expanding the ribcage.
Next, make horseshoe shapes with your index finders and thumbs on both hands, the Chinese call this shape a “tiger’s mouth”. Place your tiger’s mouth hand shape around your midriff area, located on the sides of your body between the bottom ribs and hip crest. You know you’ve found it when you feel a soft, squishy area that lacks bones. Then, sink your hands into your body about an inch or two (2-5 cm), remembering not to exceed your two-thirds of effort in body or mind or going in too far.
Breathe deeply into your diaphragm, belly and sides, so that your breath pushes out your hands. When you breathe out, let your hands sink back into your midriff a bit. Follow your breaths a few times to tune into and train your body to expand your midriff area.
Then, place your hands on your floating ribs at the bottom of your ribcage on the sides of your body. Again, breathe in deeply to expand this area and breathe out to relax it. If you keep your hands on your body, it’ll help focus your intent on that place, making it easier to move and train your awareness of the area.
When your bottom ribs are moving well, continue up the sides of your ribs, slowly working up to your armpits. The top two-thirds of your ribcage, at the sides of your lungs, should be quite easy to expand, but the bottom one-third must expand first. If not, the midriff gets left out and with it goes the massage for the liver, stomach and spleen.
Once you’ve activated the different parts of your ribs, make sure the whole ribcage is moving sideways and you inflate/expand the midriff, and entire belly area. The diaphragm, belly, midriff and ribcage should all breathe together.
Remember if you push or strain, you will inhibit your effort and the potential health benefits. Simply relax and let go of any stress, anxiety or negative emotions…if only for a few minutes at a time.