Fairly commonly, people have the idea that chest breathing is “bad”, belly breathing is “good”, and that “diaphragm” breathing means expanding the belly. In fact it is not a choice between breathing into your belly or your chest. Rather, it is a combination of both. The key to this lies in the ability of your breastbone and the front of your chest wall to expand.
Bearing in mind that your lungs expand as you breathe in, and that your lungs occupy the interior of the chest/rib cage (see image) – as your lungs expand, so does your entire chest.
The entire breath mechanism – spine + ribs + cartilages + breastbone – has around 120 articulations/joints/locations for movement. So it just doesn’t make sense that the chest should be still/not move during breath. Which begs the question – how does the chest move in a free and unhindered diaphragm breath??
Notice that the construction of the front of the rib cage includes multiple expansion joints: two within the breastbone itself, seven on each side between cartilages and breastbone, ten on each side between rib bone and cartilages, and also the merging of lower cartilages to one another – 42 places for movement !!!
When people inhale and their upper chest/breastbone lifts, the entire chest wall is moving forwards and up with limited or no expansion within the front of the chest wall. This breath pattern tends to be accompanied by a feeling of effort in the upper chest/neck/shoulders/collar bones, especially with a deep breath. The breastbone moves forwards and up.
When people inhale with mainly or only belly expansion, the chest wall doesn’t move much if at all, also with limited or no expansion of the front of the chest wall. The breastbone moves little if at all, and the expansion of the rib cage is largely suppressed.
What to do instead???
The Breastbone area is a key to a natural diaphragm breath. When your rib cage expansion includes the the entire front of your chest, the expansion joints within your breastbone allow it to spread and lengthen subtly top to bottom. Combined, the 42 expansion joints have the overall sense that within the front of your chest wall there is a spreading away from the centre of the breastbone. The entire chest+abdomen+pelvis space expands as one single space, in 3D. There is a sense that the inflation arrives from within. The breastbone moves away from the spine forwards without moving upwards.
Firstly: Let your awareness drop into your body in a general sense, and into your breath, also in a general sense – without necessarily making your breath do This or That or The Other – let it respond to your awareness. This helps to bring a general sense of relaxation.
Secondly: Bring your awareness to your breastbone, and allow the sense that it is soft, relaxed, expansive, and able to spread, melt and soften. This helps to disperse any unhelpful tensions in your chest muscles – intercostals, pectorals.
Thirdly: Let your breath trickle and expand it’s own way in, without adding any effort from the muscles or bones of your chest, neck or shoulders. The sense is that the expansion is from within your body.
Notice: that your entire torso can expand as a unit without selecting this place or that or the other.
Notice: that your breastbone can expand forwards without moving upwards at the same time. In particular the lower breastbone moves directly forwards.
Enjoy! Experiment with this in a range of different scenarios, postures, movements and activities.
Helpful stretches to open the front of your shoulders/chest wall:
- “hanging” from overhead door frame/bar – get a grip on the door frame w finger tips or hands over bar/beam, bend your knees softly to let the weight of your torso hang/drip/soften down away from your arms
- sitting on a chair w shoulder blade height backrest – with hands behind your head, support your head and lean back over the backrest to open your shoulders/chest.
- use a gym/swiss ball to open your chest – the simplest way is to sit on the floor leaning against the ball against the wall – with hands behind your head, support your head and lean back over the ball to open your shoulders/chest.