As long as we are alive, we are breathing! So it is very useful to understand how breathing affects both our posture and our spinal flexibility. Many different muscles participate in the breathing process, and breathing is one of the few physical functions that is both automatic and under our control. While there is no wrong way to breathe, taking control of our breath and learning to strengthen our central breathing muscles like the diaphragm is a great tool to improve many aspects of our physical and emotional state, including posture and spinal flexibility.
How We Breathe Affects our Posture
The spine is designed to be extremely mobile, able to move forwards, backwards, twist, and side bend. For more information on spinal mobility check out this blog post on spinal anatomy for back benders.
The ability of our spine to take advantage of this exquisite range of motion depends in part on our posture. If we habitually stand and move in ways that force our back muscles to become tight and over-worked, we will find ourselves with tension, even pain. The muscles in our back and neck can become resentful and stressed out. The way we breath can either help or hinder our back’s ability to relax and feel full mobility.
Breathing Can Relax the Spinal Muscles
One of the most important skills we need in order to relax our spinal muscles is the full exhale. When we exhale all the way our rib cage drops down away from our chin and our diaphragm relaxes, created a dome shape up inside our rib cage. This big, muscular dome, even relaxed, provides a lot of support for the rib cage (called the zone of apposition), so when we exhale fully our upper back and neck muscles get a little break, lengthen out, and the rib cage just floats on that diaphragm.
Surprisingly, many of us don’t do a great job of exhaling. As I explain in my blog post on core muscles and how they coordinate together, a full exhale and relaxation of the diaphragm requires a corresponding increase in participation from the “meat corset” muscles that wrap around your waist (the transversus abdominus, the internal obliques, and the external obliques) as well as the pelvic floor muscles.
If we have neglected to develop our relationship with this group of core muscles, it will be hard for the diaphragm to relax and therefore we will never get that corresponding relaxation in our upper back and neck muscles.
10 Minutes of Breathing to Improve Posture and Spinal Flexibility
I created a 10 minute series of exercises that guide your body through a coordinated breathing routine that facilitates these long, complete exhales while encouraging your waist muscles to participate while your neck and spinal muscles to relax. It is a series of four exercises in increasing levels of challenge, each one building on the last to develop the deep awareness of both diaphragmatic relaxation and core engagement, with a little spinal flexion thrown in since this is the first direction that we want to spine to go if we are working to increase spinal mobility.
All you need to try it out is a spot on the floor and a few pillows to get comfy. No previous fitness experience or flexibility is needed to do this. It is an exercise for any body. If, as the exercises progress, you find yourself feeling tension in your back or unable to find the meat corset muscles, just go back to the first exercise for a while.
This series is a good way to start to strengthen your core muscles if traditional ab strengtheners like crunches feel awkward and miserable, or cause your neck and back to over work. It is also an excellent warm up for a core workout like Pilates, or for anything involving spinal flexibility like contortion, pole, dance, or yoga.