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Understanding Breath:

June 25, 2010 11:42 AM

It is important to understand the various patterns of respiration in order to help clients & students move more efficiently. Understanding this will help you create an individualized and unique training session and obtain meaningful results. Habitual improper breathing patterns lead to structural misalignment that inhibit natural movement patterns. By helping people breath more fully, you will help create a physiological chain reaction that will shift mental focus, movement patterns, and strength development.

There are the three primary muscle groups most strongly involved in breathing. They are the intercostal muscles of the thoracic ribcage, the abdominal muscles, and the diaphragm. Most people in the US are stressed out, have a poor diet with little nutrients, and don't get enough exercise. Not only does this leave them weak, but the muscles of respiration become shortened and pull on the structural integrity of the bones. Therefore, being able to identify poor breathing skills is critical for meaningful, lasting results.

abdominal breathing

Thoracic breathing, fight or flight breath, activates the sympathic nervous system. The upper ribs & chest expand on inhalation with little involvement of the diaphragm or abdomen which are held in tightly. This creates a vigorous upper body breathing pattern with heightened arousal, anxiety, and stress appropriate only for emergency situations. Problems develop when the diaphragm remains continually tense and inspiration does not allow enough oxygen into the lungs. This breath is inefficient and requires more energy than it provides. Over time, gravity pulls the blood in the alveoli (hollow cavities of the lungs that are the primary site of gas exchange) into the lower halves of the lungs, leaving only the top portion of the lungs for gas exchange. Lightheadedness, headaches, cold hands & feet, hyperventilation and an anxious mind are all the result of this shallow breath.

Results of Long Term Thoracic Breathing:
When breathing is shallow, there is a drop in the level of CO2 in the system; shifting the blood toward alkalinity (too much alkalinity is toxic to the system). With the CO2 levels lowered the arteries that feed the brain contract (causing headaches) along with the muscles (which produces muscles tension as they draw excess calcium into the tissue) and the nervous system becomes excitable (producing inappropriate muscle responses).

As time passes and we age, this habituated improper breathing will cause the thoracic spine to develop an accentuated curvature. Ossification of cartilage in the ribcage accompanied by flabby underdeveloped abdomen and tightened diaphragm muscle make proper breathing nearly impossible. Movement may become painful as the spinal column is pulled out of it natural primal alignment pattern.

The Abdominal Muscles:
the abdominal muscles

Abdominal breathing occurs with little resistance from the abdominal muscles also, the intercostal muscles have little to no involvement. The abdomen simply pushes forward while remaining relaxed in response to the diaphragm descending. This is a relaxing breath because of this lack of muscular engagement. It offers no power or tension nor does it offer any protection for the spine. It does, however, assist in providing increased blood flow to the visceral organs below the diaphragm. This intern promotes peristalsis (contraction of smooth muscle to aid digestion).

The Diaphragm:
the diaphramDiaphragmatic breathing involves the downward motion on the inhalation and up on exhalation. The taut abdominal muscles also lift up and in with exhalation helping to push the diaphragm against the lungs and expansion of the lower ribcage (intercostal muscles) on the inhalation helps stretch the outer edges of the diaphragm to create more space for the lungs to fill. This breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (calming & cooling to the body) creating mental clarity and attentiveness.

Techniques to Open the Diaphragm:
There are main ways to tone and stretch the diaphragm including manual therapy (hands on pressure point work), pranayama (breathing exercises), and even cardiovascular workouts. Moving straight into cardiovascular work without addressing the underlying alignment issue is an inefficient approach.

Beginning each session with various breathing techniques will enable your clients to have stretch and tone the thoracic spine. Unlocking this area before working with the kettlebells will create greater mobility for a more efficient workout.

My favorite is Uddiyana Bandha, a yogic belly lock that creates a vacuum to pull the internal organs up into the ribcage. This is a powerful way to work the muscles from the inside out. As the vacuum pulls the internal organs into the ribcage, the pressure not only stretches but begins to tone the diaphragm, abdomen, and intercostal muscles. The expansion of the diaphragm also allows the intercostal muscles expand and thoracic spine is unlocked. When this happens, we find the mobility needed for a more powerful workout.

the abdominal muscles
Caution: this should always be done on an empty stomach and is not appropriate for pregnant or menstruating women. This breath should NEVER be done while working directly with kettlebells or weights. Practice breathing behind the shield when swinging. This tool is to help PREPARE clients for the RKC protocols and breathing behind the shield. It is best to practice and master the technique before trying to teach it to others.

Proper Technique-Uddiyana Bandha:
Start with legs in wide stance as if preparing for a sumo squat. Sweep the arms up over head and draw in a deep inhale filling the lung. Exhale hedging at the hips as you bring your hands to the thighs. Empty the lungs completely. With empty breath, pull your belly button into the back of the spine and up into the ribcage. Drop your chin down onto your chest to prevent in pain in your throat. Your belly will appear hallowed out. Hold your breath out for as long as you feel comfortable. Release the belly, come to standing, and then take in your inhalation. Repeat 3-5 times to warm the belly and spine before working out.

This breath takes some time to learn. You may not get it the first few times, but in time it will get easier.

I have seen some amazing result utilizing this technique with my clients. Many of them have come back to working out after taking a few years off, only returning due to spinal pain. Using this first to correct alignment and breathing technique, they were better able to perform the RKC protocols.

Tara Robertson is RKC, massage therapist, and holds certification various yoga styles. She is part of the Teaching Faculty for Pure Yoga and is on her way to becoming a physical therapist. Currently, she works from her Yoga Mind Warrior Body Studio in Palo Alto, CA.