In our last blog “‘Core’ training…are you doing it wrong???” we talked about intra-abdominal pressure as being necessary to “engage” your “core.” We also discussed the diaphragms two functions, breathing and posture, which are interrelated. In most cases, if you have good posture, your breath will come easily and if you have shitty posture, your breathing will suffer. This applies to the reverse as well; difficulty breathing will affect the shape of the torso. Try slouching (if you aren’t already), take a deep breath. Now, sit up straight and take a deep breath. Astounding, right? It should be no surprise then, that the quality with which we breathe will impact the ability to execute activities with good form. So then proper breathing under physical stress (from exercising for instance) should be of the utmost importance. Right? Right.
So… what the heck is proper breathing? You may have heard many yoga or fitness people talk about “diaphragmatic breathing,” or “belly breathing,” as being the end all, be all magical cure for all of your breathing needs and that you should be breathing that way at all times. I’ve even heard people teach their students to take the deepest breath possible at all times. This would be appropriate if you were preparing to go deep sea diving, perhaps, but certainly not all the time. Your breathing rate and volume should vary to adapt to your activity. For instance, you don’t need to breathe like you are running a marathon when you are watching TV. OK, then… how the heck am I supposed to breathe?!
Well, you are doing it now! That’s right, every single time that you take a breath, you are using your diaphragm! There is NO SUCH THING as non-diaphragmatic breathing (with the exception of certain medical conditions). Ever. It’s just science. Not to be confused with “belly breathing,” a method of breathing in which you allow the abdomen to protrude on the inhale. In yoga, this is often thought to be the best way to breathe, because babies and animals do it, so it MUST be good. Right? Not quite. Not to say it is bad, but it is not appropriate ALL the time. Animals have a different diaphragm function, because of thorax position (think about it.. they are horizontal) and babies have no choice but to breathe into their abdomens because their rib cage has yet to ossify to allow the intercostal muscles to contract. Again, nothing wrong with this kind of breathing, but this is perhaps not the best way to breathe if you were to try to lift something really heavy over your head, run really fast or remain in a bound twist in yoga.
You will better understand if you know how breathing ACTUALLY works. Your lungs are passive structures, which do not do work, but work is done onto them. They are in a direct relationship with the inside of the rib cage because of a fluid, called pleural fluid. This fluid creates a vacuum between the lungs and the rib cage and allows the lungs to slide freely within it. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards and the external intercostals (on an active inhale) move the rib cage up and out to the sides. The volume of the lungs increases to the point that there is less air pressure in the lungs than in the atmosphere and in order to balance this equilibrium (think back to high school science) fresh air comes into the lungs to balance the pressure. The air pressure inside the lungs (after the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) soon becomes greater than the atmosphere and another exchange happens, starting the exhale part of the breath cycle. On a passive exhale, all of these muscles relax, which brings the rib cage back down to its resting position. During an active exhale, other muscles, such as the internal intercostals and abdominal wall contract and the air is pushed out. Ok. Got that? Well, even if you didn’t, the point is that the SHAPE (form, posture, whatever) that your torso takes at any given time is inseparable from the breath! Consequently, if you do not make room for your diaphragm, you will not breathe! Try this: Sit down and squeeze your abdominal wall, lift your pelvic floor and tighten your rib cage as hard as you can and hold it. Now, try to breathe without increasing any part of the volume of your torso. If you were able to, you cheated, because it’s not possible.
Ok fine, so breathing and posture are inseparable. Now what do I do with this information? In our next blog, we will discuss a technique to help you integrate all of this information.