09 Oct POSTURE AND BREATH
Want to improve your posture? Just breathe.
Consider this question:
I am lighter than a feather, but even the strongest cannot hold me for very long. What am I?
The answer? It’s your breath, of course.
The average person takes more than 23,000 breaths every day, but most of us don’t put much thought into breathing. The same can be said for good posture or joint alignment, as well as how posture and breath are undeniably connected. It’s like good light—you don’t really notice it until it turns bad, and then you really miss it.
When I studied theatre at the California Institute of the Arts, we did an awful lot of training on breathing for actors. Actually, considering how a character might breathe is a very “inside-out” technique an actor might choose to begin piecing together a performance. It is an effective approach, simply because breath is a facet of the character that ties into everything—how they move, how they sound and how they look when they are just standing there in the background, i.e. their posture. Breath can be a key to unlocking the ability to embody a character.
In a classic case of art imitating life or vice versa, the way we breathe says a lot about us as real people, and how we look and feel when we stand on the world’s stage. If the muscles used in respiration are either too stiff or too weak it can have a profound effect on our ability to embody our own bodies, and the effects of our workaday posture might be subtly creating that weakness or stiffness without us even noticing the “character” it’s giving us.
“Any muscle of the torso can arguably be a muscle of respiration, since the tissues are either stabilizing or mobilizing to promote breathing.” – Jill Miller.
In this context, let’s consider the modern lifestyle and posture. How do many of us spend most of our adult lives? Seated at desks, driver’s seats, or standing hunched over the work we’re doing with our hands. How stressful is the daily grind? Usually, stress levels vary between moderate to extreme and are seldom reported as low or manageable. How long is a working day? Most of us would say “too long.” What are some of us doing to relieve this stress? Engaging in activities that include doses of healthier stress like hard physical training, recreational sports or outdoor activities.
How does all this affect our breathing? These conditions all promote a physical condition and posture that is adapted to a state of up-regulation. This means we are invoking the sympathetic nervous system more often to help our bodies achieve a level of arousal for action. Breathing in this case is usually either thoracic, and at times becomes clavicular due to the implied stress factors and the forward flexed posture we are so often required to be in. Repeated exposure to this stimulus adapts us to it, making the muscles of the torso more rigid, immobile and biased toward tension instead of relaxation. In such a state, it becomes increasingly difficult to take the deep, abdominal breaths that invoke a parasympathetic response to down-regulate the nervous system and promote recovery. Considering that our lifestyles are not likely to change too dramatically, what can we do to correct this?
One approach that might help is to simply get the minimum effective dose of scheduled postural correction and down-regulation. A few basic practices peppered in throughout the week can make a world of difference in terms of restoring the ability to recover and breathe properly. Here are three of my favorite exercises for untying the knots in our torsos that might be hindering our ability to breathe deeply. You can easily string these together for a five-minute restorative boost, and add it to your weekly regimen.
Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
The fibers of the respiratory diaphragm—the most essential muscle of respiration—connect to the psoas (hip flexor) and both muscles originate on the lumbar vertebrae. Tight hip flexors can not only negatively impact your posture, but also restrict the movement of the diaphragm when you breath. The half-kneeling hip flexor stretch can be effective without any equipment, but a massage stick, short dowel rod or ProBar pressed into the ground in front of you will help to engage the core and get you more stretch where you need it. You can progress the exercise by taking the bar up overhead, and use the Twist & Pull feature of the ProBar for even more muscle activation. Either way, hit 5-10 reps on each side for a brief but effective practice, exhaling each time as you take your hip forward into the stretch.
Tall Kneeling T-Rotation
Tension and limited mobility in the thoracic spine can also inhibit deep abdominal-thoracic breathing. In the Tall Kneeling T-Rotation, use your obliques to rotate your upper body into a twist. You can use your arms and “take aim” as you would with a rifle, picking a spot behind you to try to point, and eventually move past with your fingers. Even better is to rest a dowel or ProBar on your shoulders and increase the twist factor by pushing with one side while pulling with the other. Twist each direction 5-10 times, exhaling as you rotate.
Taking the thoracic spine out of flexion and into extension while mobilizing the shoulders can help reverse the effects of the computer posture, and allow the diaphragm to more completely relax upon exhalation. This means you can get more of that old stale air out of your lungs. If you don’t have a dowel or ProBar, you can use a stretch band or yoga strap. Standing tall with your arms down in front of you, inhale to take the arms up overhead, and exhale as you take your arms as far behind you as you can. Then inhale to reverse the motion as your arms come back overhead, and exhale as your arms come back in front of you to your start position. 5-10 reps again on this one, being careful not to force the end range of motion. Just work with what you’ve got and it will increase over time.
Our bodies have an amazing ability to adapt to what we expose them to repeatedly—but this is both a blessing and curse. If our schedule contains a lot of exposure to less than healthy joint positioning and stress-responsive breathing, then that’s what we’ll get good at, eschewing the healthier stuff out of necessity. By practicing just a few restorative drills at least 3-5 times throughout the week, we can begin to stimulate our bodies’ ability to adapt back to a more neutral alignment and enjoy the function that comes with it.