Postural movements and anatomy of breath Pt. 1

Oh boy… This can be complex.

To simplify let’s look at two primary muscle groups which affect breath.

How do the shoulders and the hips affect breathing muscles of the spine?

Think of cat cow and how often it’s cued with breath, IN backbend, OUT forward bend. But you’ll notice that not everyone breathes in and out the same direction of movement.

Some people find they get more of a sense of IN breath in the cat and OUT in the back bending cow.

Often in this exercise a chest breath is responsible for this, breathing into the front or the back of the chest (less so the abdomen) affects whether the preference is IN forward bend or IN backward bend.

The complexity of the shoulders makes this more ambiguous, so let’s briefly take attention at first towards the seemingly simpler lower trunk affect on breath.

Of the trunk and hips, the secondary movement ACTION assisting abdominal inhalation is ……..tummy expansion.

This draws the abdominal contents forward and makes space for the diaphragm (the prime mover an only pure agonist of inhalation) to pull down into the vacuum. Most people find it difficult to allow their tummy to expand, especially in public.

This abdominal breath is not so accessible due to cultural conditioning and takes people a while to let go of that chronic holding (often caused by over-tension) in the abdominal muscles.

For many this means low back pain and burning energy for practice instead off gaining energy in the form of relaxed alertness.

Hip extension is much more accessible when it comes to encouraging an abdominal breath lower into the trunk. The lengthening of the front hip brings the diaphragm down more easily due to the fascial connections with the iliopsoas hip flexor muscles.

Leg going back is extending assisting diaphragm inhale

Leg going back is extending assisting diaphragm inhale

So a general principle which can be helpful to apply in marrying breath with movement is as the hip extends an abdominal inhale will happen more functionally with the diaphragm.

Examples of hip extension actions are:

  • the leg stepping back from forward fold to lunge

  • lifting leg of a 3 legged dog

  • lifting up into bridge pose

So we could simplify the whole issue of when to breath IN during your vinyasa sequence when the front of one hip or both are opened to extension. There’s a little room for creativity in this though as often we will have one hip flexed in while the other is extended out. We might take advantage then of abdominal expansion to assist a breath IN, or posterior tilt to assist a breath OUT.

We may also take advantage of the shoulder movements to weave breath seamlessly through our vinyasa sequence. As mentioned earlier cat cow is ambiguous, so we can determine that the shoulder actions therein don’t have the strongest influence on the breath.

So which actions of the shoulders influence the breath more effectively?

The main actions in the shoulders for cat cow are:

  • protraction and internal rotation (cat) and

  • retraction and external rotation (cow).

NB many inexperienced students will not express the pure forms of these movements but essentially these are the primary movements.

For the beginner in the modern world we can simplify influence of shoulder movements on the breath by noting that elevation of the shoulder generally brings about an INhale, and shoulder depression sends chest breath OUT.

What we might notice then with the “reverse” breathers in cat cow is that they use a combination of:

  • protraction and internal rotation (cat) and elevation (shoulders to ears) breath comes IN

  • retraction and external rotation (cow) and depression (shoulders towards hips) breath goes OUT

Or as we tend to see with inexperienced students, any combination of these movements can lead to ambiguities in the pattern of breath.

When a yogi is very familiar with uddiyana bandha this will have more of an influence but this is for another article.

In short, bandhas are complex and the common misunderstanding is that uddiyana bandha is pulling the naval into the spine. Whereas that is an after effect of the prime movement being chest expansion using the intercostal muscles drawing the naval in without necessarily tensing.

Most people struggle with this idea that the different parts of spinal muscles can be independently isolated, hence somewhere along the lines people started teaching an external simplification of uddiyana bandha without internal understanding. Hence we have people assuming uddiyana Bandha means pulling the naval in. Which can be done in at least four different ways but most will likely choose the tense tummy option leading the all sorts of problems. Any way, it’s a whole other subject.

So to continue to keep things on topic, shoulder vinyasa breath made simple:

  • arms up (flexing and elevating) goes well with a breath IN

  • Arms down (extending and depressing) with a breath OUT

With a combination of BOTH hips extending (forwards) and arms flexing (up) we encourage breath into the entire front body as in the classical sun salutation, effortlessly. Care must be taken not to overextend and squash into the low back (as you see…

With a combination of BOTH hips extending (forwards) and arms flexing (up) we encourage breath into the entire front body as in the classical sun salutation, effortlessly. Care must be taken not to overextend and squash into the low back (as you see in the GIF above- hinging in the low back not desirable for trunk balanced stability and mobility).

Inexperienced students will naturally combine these movements unless taught unhelpfully by a teacher “shoulders down and back, “FOREVER” ”. You’ll see this happening a lot even when arms are raised, but this is a pretty unnatural movement and more often useful in the situation of someone is using yoga therapy as rehab with shoulder rotator cuff injuries.

In the next part we’ll look at how twisting and breath relate…

Thanks for reading, and if you’re able to get to the north west of the UK this December I’m running two experiential workshops on incorporating some of these body awareness deepening principles into movement meditation:

Assists workshop 8th December

Sequencing 14th December

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