Tips & Techniques to Discover How Better Breathing Habits Can Help You Improve Posture, and Reduce Pain for a Healthy & Active Life
Breathing is the first and last thing we do in life. And it is a good thing that we don't have to think about taking each breath to stay alive. However, a little practice for more efficient breathing habits can contribute greatly to maintaining good health, developing healthy movement habits, improving posture, and even reducing pain.
There are MANY different techniques to explore for better breathing habits. Each has its benefits for better health. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some tips and techniques for breathing that I have found to be most helpful for better posture, support, and to help with the development of healthy movement habits for optimal whole-body health.
Paying attention to your current breathing habits, where you put the air to inhale, how deep your breaths are, how you breathe when you move and exercise, and potentially modifying or improving your breathing habits can help you achieve better overall health.
Each week I’ll post a new article with a new breathing technique and breathing exercise that you can play with and practice to improve your awareness and options for good breathing habits. With a little time and practice, you can be confident that your breathing habits are helping support your healthy body and active life.
You might discover that you breathe differently in different positions. (Standing might be different than seated, lying on your back, vs. belly, vs. side lying, kneeling, right-side up vs. upside down….)
It’s not a big deal right now to know what you do in all of these positions, but in time you’ll want to notice how your breathing habits change depending on what you’re doing.
To Get Started, Let’s Assess Your Current Breathing Habits:
Take a moment and focus on your breath. You can do this standing or seated. Right now we’re focusing on your basic, everyday breathing, so pick a position that’s comfortable. If possible, to start, s
tand in front of a mirror and watch yourself breathe.
Where do you feel (or see) the air go inside your body as you inhale?
From a Healthy Movement Habits standpoint, here’s what’s happening to your posture and body support based on the different places you current breathing habits are placing the air in your body when you breathe.
If air goes into your belly on the inhale:
- Into the Belly?
- Into the Chest?
- Into the Back,
- When You Breathe In Does the Air Go Into One Side of Your Body More than the Other?
You lose the support of your abs and the belly expanding forward on your inhale pulls your lower back into more extension. The result can contribute to reduced core support, compression, and lower back pain.
If air goes into your chest on the inhale:
you are more than likely increasing the extension of your upper spine with each breath you take. This means your whole back is arching more, creating tension in the mid-to-low back and eliminating the opportunity for you to fully fill your lungs with air. Breathing will be quicker and shallow. It might seem almost impossible to take in a really good deep breath.
With the upper back muscles overworking it can be difficult to get the lower abdominals to function well for balance and support. High chest breathing also elevates the shoulders and increases neck & shoulder tension.
If air goes into your back and lower ribs on the inhale:
You’ll notice that inhaling actually improves your tall lifted posture. Done well, you are filling up your lungs from the bottom to the top, which helps lift the ribcage up off the hips, and decompresses the spine, creating more joint space for healthy movement.
This “back and bottom rib breathing” is called Posterio-lateral breathing, and it’s the Pilates-style of breathing that is ideal for improving posture and supporting healthy movement habits, but generally speaking, this in NOT most peoples every-day breathing method. But ideally, this is the breathing habit I’d like to encourage you to develop!
Take a few minutes and focus on feeling this Posterio-lateral, Pilates-style breath in your body. Breathe-in so that the back of your spine and ribcage fills with air. Your lungs are located underneath your ribs and your ribcage spans the almost the whole torso. And the ribs are attached to the spine, when you breathe in, think about filling up your lungs from the bottom of your ribcage all the way to the top of your spine.
Need a visual image? If you tied a water balloon to a sink and turned on the water, which end of the balloon would fill up first, the bottom or the top? The bottom, right! This is the same way you need to you fill your lungs with air, from the bottom to the top.
Using this back-rib breathing technique, it increases the natural curves of the spine. Done well, you’ll notice that you get taller on every inhale. And ideally on every exhale you’ll gather a little more core support to keep you from slouching as you exhale and deflate the lungs.
If the air goes into one side (one lung) more than the other when you inhale:
We all have a dominate side and weaker side for our body. (Are you right-handed, or left-handed?) And there’s a good chance this imbalance is also evident with your breathing. You might not be able to notice it now, but as you learn new breathing exercises, it may become more evident to you that you tend to use one lung more than the other.
If you’re watching yourself breath in the mirror and you notice that you tend to side-bend slightly, perhaps one shoulder is higher than the other, or one side of your ribs sits closer to your hip than the other, these can be signs that indicate the dominant/weaker relationship of filling your lungs fully and evenly when you breathe. Don’t worry about this right now, practice good Pilates-style, posterior-lateral breathing feeling your body get taller on every breath and if it needs more attention make note and watch for the One Lung Breathing article that will be in this series.
Now, let’s take a look at your shoulders, neck, and head while you breathe.
For this it will be very helpful to stand in front of your mirror, and watch what your neck head, and shoulders, is doing as you breathe in.
If you notice, tight grippy muscles in the front of your neck, see your shoulders actively hike up towards your ears (instead of just riding up with the fill of the ribcage), or notice that your head gets closer to your body as you inhale… you are jamming your head into your body with every breath!
These bad habits while you’re breathing can be huge contributing factors for neck pain, shoulder pain, and headaches!!!
Strive to carry the inhale up the spine with a relaxed neck, and continue the lift all the way up to the base of the skull.
- Do you see the front of the neck grip and tighten as you inhale?
- Do your shoulders actively hike up around your ears on your inhale?
- Does your head get closer to your shoulders or farther away as you inhale?
You should feel like your head is a helium balloon floating up to the sky on your inhale. Done well, the shoulders will rise a little, but only because you are filling with air, not because they are actively lifting. If anything, you might almost feel your shoulders go down, the farther you fill the lungs with air to support lifting and lengthening the upper spine, neck, and head.
The shoulders dropping (or pulling down from the bottom tips of the shoulder blades)
can be a great anchor point for leverage to ensure the lifting and elongation of the spine on your inhale. This counter-leverage may stretch your neck muscles a bit if the neck is tight. By keeping your head up, lighter at the top of your spine and doing less gripping with your shoulders and neck muscles when you inhale, you will begin to notice a significant reduction in neck pain. For me personally, figuring this out and improving my breathing habits solved my weekly “Friday afternoon headaches” completely!
Find Yourself Feeling Dizzy?
It is normal to feel lightheaded or dizzy as you begin to practice different breathing habits. Especially when focusing on expanding the lungs and lengthening the spine for a deeper inhale and more forceful exhale. Don't overdo it. If you start to feel lightheaded or dizzy, go back to a shallower, more normal breath until the dizzy feeling goes away - This might take only a few seconds, or possibly a minute or two.
The easier it gets to breath into your back, the stronger your muscles become to accomplish the separation of the ribs and lift of the spine as you inhale, the less dizzy you will become when breathing into the back-ribs.
Developing new breathing habits probably won’t happen overnight! But throughout your day, when you have a quiet moment to check in with your body and focus on your breath, pause and take 5-10 breaths.
Strive to feel the air filling up from the bottom of your lungs to the top, lifting and lengthening to improve your tall posture. Inhaling lengthens the natural curves of the spine, lifts the ribs up off the hips, and the head off the neck. The more your shoulders relax down, the easier it is for your neck and head to float up. As you exhale, maintain support with your abdominals.
In time, you will begin to notice that your body will naturally begin using this as its everyday breathing habit. For now, consciously controlling your breath can help reinforce this new and better breathing habit for whole-body health.