Breathing is one of those non-optional, things-that-absolutely-must happen if we want to stay alive. Because of this, we have options. Always good to have options when it comes to something essential like breathing. What do I mean about options?
For starters, air can get in through your mouth or your nose. As much as I hate breathing through my mouth, I'm grateful for the option on the fortunately rare occasion when my nose is completely stuffed up.
We also have 3 ways for increasing the size of the chest cavity so that air is drawn into the lungs. It's not that the chest cavity gets bigger because there's more air in it. It's that when we change the size of our chest cavity, we lower the pressure there and it creates a vacuum that pulls air into our lungs. The body is pretty cool like that.
Just like it's handy to have options for breathing air in, it's also handy to have options for changing the pressure in the chest cavity.
Option 1 - Belly Breathing
When we think of the right way to breathe, we usually think of belly breathing. If we want to relax or calm ourselves down, we belly breathe. We breathe in, our belly expands out and our diaphragm muscle drops down. Our diaphragm is shaped a bit like an umbrella. The outer edges of it attach to our rib cage and the back center portion attaches to the front of your lumbar vertebrae. When we belly breathe, the center of the diaphragm umbrella becomes the lowest point.
Pros: It's calming. Best done when lying down and the back has additional support behind it.
Cons: There's a lot of downward movement of the diaphragm when we belly breathe and along with this, there's increased pressure on the abdominal organs and, as a result, the pelvic floor. If your pelvic floor is already struggling, or you'd like to prevent your pelvic floor from ever needing to struggle, belly breathing isn't your ideal breathing strategy. Another downside to belly breathing is that the expansion of the belly decreases support for the spine.
Option 2 - Scalenic breathing
Our scalene muscles help form the right and left front sides of our neck musculature. If you dig your hand a bit under your clavicles (aka collarbones), at about the 1/2 way point of the bone, you'll most like feel some tension through there. The scalenes travel under the clavicles to attach to the 1st and 2nd ribs. Because of their attachment to the ribs, they can help elevate the rib cage - another way to increase the size of the chest cavity. You'll recognize scalenic breathing because the clavicles & rib cage move up and down.
Pros: If you really need to suck air in after sprinting to make your plane connection, this can come in handy.
Cons: If you're looking to increase neck tension, this is an easy way to do it. I have yet to meet the person who needs more neck tension and the issues that can go along with it: headaches and increased wear and tear on the cervical vertebrae and discs (disc degeneration, anyone?)
Option 3 - Torsional Breathing
In between our ribs we have short muscles that attach one rib to the other (image on right). These are our intercostal muscles. If you've ever eaten barbeque ribs, these are the muscles you've enjoyed. The intercostals can bring one rib closer to the other and also rotate the ribs kind of like horizontal blinds (in reality, it's a lot more complex and multidimensional than horizontal blinds but it's a start). This rotation movement and the expansion of the circumference of the ribcage (front to back and side to side) creates more space in our chest cavity. Watch the video below and breathe along.....
When we breathe like this, the diaphragm muscle is pulled out by the ribs as the rib cage expands. Imagine a parachute stretched taut, so that it's flat. It's kind of like that.
Pros: Torsional breathing allows the ribcage to expand without adding tension to the neck musculature or creating a large increase in pelvic floor pressure. It also has the added bonus of increasing the bone mineral density of your rib cage! Ribs are one of the top 4 sites for bone mineral loss aka osteoporosis. When you use your intercostals to help you breathe, you're working those muscles which places a load on the bones that they're attached to. This load is what informs your bone density receptors about how dense they need to be.
Cons: It takes practice. Most of us haven't breathed like this in a long time so it takes some time to wake up those intercostal muscles and development the mobility in the other muscles that surround the ribcage. Because those muscles most likely haven't been used much, it may feel like you can't take a deep breath or get enough air. Practice a little at a time. See the video below some tips.
In the video below I demo the 3 types of breathing and show some tips for developing your ability to breathe torsionally (hint: it's the best possible use for pantyhose).
Start paying attention to which breathing pattern is your default. If it's not torsional breathing, get out those pantyhose and start practicing!
Breathe in, breathe out :)