Pilates-Style Posterio-Lateral Breathing Exercises to Retrain Healthy Movement Habits for Better Whole-Body Health
In the previous breathing article we discussed how to determine if you were breathing into your chest, belly or back. I suggested that if you’re natural breathing habit isn’t posterio-lateral Pilates-style back breathing, that you might want to consider learning how to access your back to breathe better and improve posture. Breathing into your back gives you access to a strong supported middle and can reduce pain in your neck and shoulders. Breathing properly is a valuable tool and one of the basic foundations for healthy movement habits, and improved overall health and wellness.
Let’s Review the Benefits of Posterio-Lateral Pilates-Style Back Breathing:
Inhaling expands the lungs, separates the ribs, helping to lengthen and increase the natural curves of the spine.
- With each inhalation, each rib separates lifting the entire ribcage up away from the hips. As the ribs pull apart, (since the ribs are attached to each segment of the spine,) every segment of the spine is lifted apart, reducing pressure on the discs and developing both length and strength through the torso.
- The rhythm of efficient back-rib-breathing, and the decompression/compression action that happens through the ribcage and spine, helps facilitate pumping vital fluids up and down the spinal column to nourish the brain and body.
- Breathing in this way is also creating adequate joint space for better movement of the spine in all directions, (bending forward, backwards, side bending, and twisting).
- Because you are reinforcing the natural curves of the spine, back breathing helps keep the upper back in a optimal position for more efficient shoulder mechanics. This can reduce neck and shoulder tension, and can help you develop healthy movement habits so you’re arms and shoulders don’t hurt when you use them.
We have to breathe to stay alive, why not breathe well to be well! Let’s learn two simple exercises to help your body develop better back-rib breathing habits.
Scarf Breathing – Seated or Standing
Sometimes it is hard to “feel” if you are actually breathing into your back-ribs. This is a marvelous breathing exercise to find and feel that your inhale is starting in the back and at the very bottom of the lungs to lift your ribs apart from the bottom to the top.
- Wrap a winter scarf around the back of the ribcage. (A cloth scarf will work better than a knitted scarf so there’s not too much “give” with the fabric.) Use the full width of the scarf. The bottom edge is right at the bottom of your ribcage, the top edge is up somewhere in the middle of the ribs.
- Cross the ends of the scarf in front of the body. There should be a small “triangle” of space between the body and scarf.
- Hold the crossed ends of the scarf with a palm up grip, elbows by the sides, arms bent at ninety degrees. (Like a bicep curl – ½ way up – or holding a platter.)
- Slightly depress the shoulders and pull gently pull on the ends of the scarf. Pull forward (away from your body) to create pressure against the back of the ribs against the scarf. (A slight tug of war feeling between the hands, scarf, and back ribs.)
- Inhale to press the ribs back into the scarf. Done well, you’ll feel the back ribs push back and start to lift up.
- Exhale and drop the shoulders drop as the low abs zip up, and the ribs close together. Arms will pull forward slightly on the exhale to help keep some tension between the ribs and the scarf.
- Maintain good vertical posture and the normal curves of the spine while playing tug of war with the scarf. Inhale the scarf pulls back and up, exhale the scarf pulls forwards.
- Be sure it is the breath and movement of the ribs that is moving the scarf. (Not your whole body shifting the weight from your heels to your toes!)
- Take 8-10 breaths (or more) using the scarf as resistance to find and feel the connection of filling the lungs from the bottom and lifting the spine and the ribs.
Child’s Pose – Rest Position
- This is a Yoga pose, but it is also a great position to help you feel the air going in to the back-ribs. (Avoid practicing in this position if your knees bother you.)
- Starting Position: From a kneeling position, sit back on the knees, with your heels to your butt. Round the body forward to rest the top of the head on the mat. Arms by your sides.
- Practice breathing into the back, expanding to lift the back ribs up and wide towards the ceiling. Take 8-10, or more deep breaths in this position. Inhale and exhale into the back.
- With the belly resting on the front of the highs it’s almost impossible to breath into the stomach or chest.
If this posterio-lateral style of breathing does not seem natural to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone! Most, (if not ALL) of the clients I’ve worked with over the past 20 years, found that their breathing habits were in need of some improvements to better support their body, improve posture, and reduce pain.
If you find that it takes lots of concentration just to stand or sit still and breathe well, chances are as soon as you start moving, exercising, or paying attention to other things, your breathing habits will shift into some other habit your body is more familiar with but may not be supporting your movements.
It will take practice to re-train your habits for better health.
When I started learning Pilates, I didn’t realize how poor my breathing habits really were, or how dramatically it was affecting my posture! I was experiencing voice problems/pain and also have a congenital deformity in my lower back so have less support for my back than the average person. It’s very scary for someone who talks for living and loves to teach to stress out about not having a voice!
It probably took me 6 months of diligent practice with lots of brain-power before my new Pilates-style back breathing habits started feeling normal. And while I didn’t start Pilates to “cure” my voice pain, what happened as a result of better breathing, improved posture, and enhanced functional movement habits is that my back got stronger, and my voice issues went away!
Now there are days when I know I’m breathing well, but still are days when a little extra attention and focus on my breath is required to keep me feeling healthy. Breathing is a fabulous way to start getting in better touch with your body.
If you’re looking for “exercises” to help you improve your health, BREATHING WELL is one of the best things you can learn to do for your body. Take the time to practice these two simple posterio-lateral breathing exercises daily, and as your body gets comfortable you can incorporate this healthy habits breathing technique into your daily life activities and workouts. Before you know it, you’ll naturally be breathing into your back, and Ta-Da!, you’ve developed a new and better habit that is no longer something that takes conscious control, but your body has accepted it as THE way to breathe to be healthy.
Click to read the other articles in this breathing series:
Better Breathing Habits to Improve Posture and Reduce Pain