Better Breathing and Movement of the Breath

by Quinn Shuff

We breathe every moment of our entire lives, so perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say that improving our breathing has the potential to improve every moment of our lives. Working with the breath is a simple yet effective embodiment focus that drops us deep into the present moment. It’s not only a meditation tool, it’s a path towards less stress, a healthier heart, more energy, better digestion, and sounder sleep. Freeing the breath opens potential for more easeful interaction within yourself and with the world. 

Better breathing isn’t necessarily deeper breathing. A better breath is a breath that dynamically changes to support whatever you’re doing, whether that’s falling asleep or running a marathon, settling your nerves or lifting heavy weights. 

Breath can fail to rise to the occasion because of muscular tension in the trunk of the body, especially in the areas around your lungs.  It’s likely that most of us have some limitations to free and easy breathing because of how we hold stress and tension in our bodies. One way to improve the breath is to soften muscular tensions that limit the movement of the breath. We can practice better breathing by inviting this movement to reemerge.

Let’s talk about where the movement of the breath happens starting with the ribcage, the bony house of the lungs and heart. The entire structure of the ribcage is designed to move with each breath. Not just the front of the ribcage, but the entire curve of the ribs as they bend under the arms and onto the backside of the body. There are muscles in between each rib, and these muscles are part of breathing. Your ribs should open and close with the breath like slatted blinds in a window. The rib cage grows wider and fuller as you inhale; it condenses as you exhale.

Then there are muscles in your neck, chest, shoulders, and upper back. Some of these muscles assist with breathing and may be over-utilized and sore because of shallow chest breathing. Chest breathing can result from or lead to feelings of stress and overwhelm. Tightness in this area can block the movement of your ribcage as you breathe. 

The primary muscle of breathing is the thoracic diaphragm, which is like a double-domed parachute that stretches across the inside of your low ribcage and bisects your torso. It divides the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Your heart and lungs are above the thoracic diaphragm; the rest of your organs are below.

When you inhale, the thoracic diaphragm contracts and draws downward toward your pelvis, smooshing and massaging your belly organs and making your stomach appear to inflate with the breath. This downward movement of the thoracic diaphragm creates a vacuum in your chest, which results in air being sucked into your lungs. The lungs passively fill with air. When you exhale, your thoracic diaphragm relaxes back upward toward your heart. This movement presses air out of your lungs. These movements together massage the heart, alternately squeezing and releasing it, which can help us see why better breathing can influence heart health.

Close your eyes and imagine the movement of your thoracic diaphragm on your next breath. Inhale, diaphragm draws down, lungs fill. Exhale, diaphragm releases up, lungs empty.

Your abdominals, all four layers of them, also impact your breathing. If you suck in your belly or wear tight, restrictive clothing, you limit your diaphragm from descending all the way down. Blocked by tension in the abdomen, less air is drawn into the lungs. This makes for a shallower breath and harder work for the thoracic diaphragm. Tension in the abdomen also means less massaging movement for the abdominal organs, which can impact digestion and organ health. The body loves movement. 

It’s not just muscles that limit free and easy breathing. Tightness and tension, “bulkiness” in the organs can also impact breathing. Have you ever been so full you can’t take a deep breath? Your stomach is right below your thoracic diaphragm, on the left side. If the diaphragm can’t descend all the way because of hardness below it, your body will encounter resistance with every inhale. Breathing will take more effort. 

Your pelvic floor, which forms the base of your torso, is another important part of the equation. The pelvic floor is a sheet of many muscles that move with your thoracic diaphragm. As you inhale these muscles accommodate the downward movement of your thoracic diaphragm and abdominal organs by getting longer, billowing out and down. These muscles aid the upward movement of your exhale by drawing in and up. 

All of the movements we’ve talked about are generally subtle and unforced, they happen naturally. The key to better breathing is to get out of our own way and allow the body to move on the rhythm of the breath as it was designed to do.    

I invite you to explore this with me in a two hour workshop on Thursday, April 13 from 6:00-8:00p at Sellwood Yoga. Sign up here.  We’ll practice noticing our own breathing patterns and move our bodies in ways that help us find space to take more easeful, relaxing breaths. I hope to see you there. 

For more about Quinn please check out her website