Since we don’t have to consciously think about breathing, we often forget how much our breath can impact the way we feel — both inside and out. Breathing directly connects the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. If you're familiar with yoga and meditation practices, you may already know that tapping into your breath can change the state of your brain within minutes. Have a stressful situation ahead of you? Take a deep breath. It may seem like simple advice, but connecting with your breath is one of the first major steps to finding alignment in the mind and body.
Along with the self-assessment mentioned above, do the same with your breathing. Check in on your breath regularly and ask yourself:
- What body parts move while you breathe – your diaphragm or your chest and shoulders?
- Do you feel your rib cage and belly expand with each breath?
- Do your shoulders feel like they are up near your ears when breathing?
Many people regularly tense their shoulders and breathe shallowly rather than use the muscles that were designed for breathing. People with “forward head posture” use their chest and shoulders to breathe — this is called “forward head breathing.” But shoulders aren’t designed to help you breathe. That’s reserved for your rib cage and diaphragm, the large muscle located within the rib cage.
Ideally, you want to breathe through your belly while your chest and shoulders remain still. This habit can be corrected by retraining yourself to belly breathe. Better posture will also allow these breathing muscles to do their job, helping you conserve energy and improve your oxygen utilization.
To use your breathing muscles, do the following:
- Allow your shoulders to relax and drop away from your ears.
- Place a hand just under your rib cage and make sure your ribs aren’t thrusting forward. If they are, allow your ribs to drop. This relieves tension in your low back and gets your core in alignment to do what it does best — assist with deep breathing.
- Keeping your hand in place, take a deep breath and feel your rib cage expand. Your hand should be moving with each breath. This type of breathing triggers the release of certain hormones in your brain that tell your body to relax, improving your alertness and focus.
It takes some practice, but the more you become aware of what your rib cage is doing throughout the day, the fuller you will breathe and the better you will function. This type of breathing will eventually come naturally to you.