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Pilates Breathing Tips To Decompress the Spine, Reduce Neck Pain, & Improve Posture

Posted Jan 24 2012 1:25pm

Are your current breathing habits helping you stay healthy, or potentially causing back pain, shoulder pain or neck pain?  Is your current breath pattern helping improve your posture with every breath you take?

Breathing is something we take for granted.  It happens automatically to keep us alive.  Inhaling is the first thing we do when we’re born, and exhaling is the last things we do when we die.  Every minute, of every day  for our entire life, our heart beats to pump life nourishing blood through our system, and our lungs and diaphragm work to provide oxygen to our blood & cells.

It’s nice to know that we don’t have to think really hard to keep breathing and stay alive, but better breathing habits definitely have added benefits to improve our health. 

My dear friend and Pilates mentor, Dianne Miller, made this comment to me about breathing – and it was a revolutionary thought  that has stuck in my brain and helped focus on breathing to improve posture,  assist with the natural action of breathing for compression/decompression of the spine, improve Pilates exercise technique, and help reduce both lower back pain, and neck pain.

“Breathing elongates the natural curves of the spine.”

“Breathing elongates the natural curves of the spine.”

  1. Lumbar Curve – An arch in the lower back.  (Ideally with the apex of the curve at L3 – at the belly button.)
  2. Thoracic Curve – A rounded, flexed upper back.  (So the curve of the shoulder blades can rest on the curve of the ribcage, that is attached to the curve of the spine.)
  3. Cervical Curve – An arch in the neck.  (Which should mirror the arch in the Lumbar spine.)

These curves work as a balance, and shock-absorbing system as we sit, stand, walk, and run – fighting gravity all day.

Balance is off, and there will be undue stress placed in other parts of the torso, neck,  and back.

I used to be a gymnast & dancer.  Big arch in my lumbar spine, (spanned my lumbar & ½ of my thoracic curve.)  This long, over-extended arch put a lot of additional strain on my lower back.  My abs could never pull in enough or work hard enough to keep my back from hurting.  And because my thoracic curve was not in flexion, but in extension it restricted my ability to get air to the bottom of my lungs – which made me a very shallow, high-chest breather.

With this posture position, I had chronic low back pain, chronic neck pain, tight shoulders, and usually by Friday afternoons a whopping headache from trying to hold things together with tension and tight muscles in the wrong places.  In addition to this, I experienced a voice injury – because I held my head forward on my neck and there wasn’t enough free air-flow through my windpipe as I spoke for me to project my voice without strain.  But I am not alone…many people have a similar posture position to this!

  • Any posture that deviates from the 3 natural curves, balanced, and changing directions at the appropriate points will have an increased risk of back pain and neck pain.
  • Any posture that does not “Ride the Breath” to elongate the natural curves of the spine on an inhale, and allows the back bones  to naturally come closer together on an exhale, is missing out on the benefits of breathing for better health.

Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself breathe.

Where does the air go inside your body as you inhale?

  • Into the Belly?
  • Into the Back, Lower Ribs?
  • Into the Chest?

If when you inhale air is going into the belly – you are losing the support in the front of your Lumbar Curve, and your inhale is pulling your lower back into more extension, and causing the back bones to come closer together.  Resulting in compression on your inhale AND more compression on the exhale.  Not a happy feeling for your spine!

If when you inhale air is going into your chest – you are increasing the extension of your thoracic curve.  This means your whole back is arching more, creating more tension in the mid-to-low back and eliminating the opportunity for you to fully fill your lungs with air.  Breathing will be quick and shallow.  The back muscles will be over working, and it will be difficult to get the abdominals to function for better balance and support.  The shoulders will also more-than-likely, be elevated with an increase in neck & shoulder tension, and the head forward, out of balance on the spine.

Learning to inhale and fill the Back, bottom ribs first, then continuing to fill the lungs up through the back of the torso is optimal.

In Pilates we call this Posterio-Lateral Breathing.  You are breathing into the back and sides of the ribcage.  Since the ribs are attached to the spine, if you start filling at the bottom first – the ribs will lift and separate as you fill with air.  When the ribs come apart, it gently pulls each segment of the spine apart also – opening the space between each joint and providing a natural moment of decompression. 

This Posterio-Lateral / Back Rib breathing technique will lift the ribcage up off the hips, while maintaining  and elongating the natural curves of the spine.  The result:  Better posture, reduced back pain, and an improved range of motion for functional movement.

Stand back in front of your mirror, and look at what your neck is doing as you breathe in.

  • Do you see the front of the neck grip and tighten as you inhale?
  • Do your shoulders actively hike up around your ears on your inhale?
  • Does your head get closer to your shoulders as you inhale?
  • Does your neck & head lengthen up and away from your shoulders?

If you see any of the first three happening as you inhale, neck muscles tighten, shoulders rise, head gets closer to your torso… you are jamming your head into your body with every breath!

Strive to carry the inhale up the spine with a relaxed neck, and continue lifting all the way up to the base of the skull.  You should feel like your head is a helium balloon floating up to the sky on your inhale.  Done well, the shoulders will rise a little, but only because you are filling with air, not because they are actively lifting.  I almost feel my shoulders go down, the farther up I fill my spine with air.

The shoulders dropping (or pulling down from the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) can be a great anchor point for leverage to ensure the lifting and elongation of the spine on your inhale. This counter-leverage may stretch your neck muscles a bit.  By keeping  your head up lighter at the top of your spine, and doing less gripping with your shoulders and neck muscles when you inhale, you will begin to notice a significant reduction in neck pain.  For me, figuring this out with my neck meant my Friday afternoon headaches went completely away!

Learning to elongate the natural curves of the spine on your inhale, and maintaining good core support on your exhale will help improve your posture, and keep your neck and back healthy.

Ideally this Posterio-Lateral Pilates breathing technique should be your everyday breathing style.

It probably won’t happen overnight!  But throughout your day, pause and take 5-10 breaths focused on feeling the lengthening of your spine, and support of your belly, with your shoulders relaxed down and your neck and head floating up.  In time, you will begin to notice that your body is naturally doing this a bit more as you are reinforcing better habits for whole-body health.

Practice this new breathing habit standing still or seated first, then apply it to everything you do for movement and exercise.  Pilates, Yoga, walking, running, dance, weight lifting, swimming, cycling, cleaning the house, mowing the yard… with everything you do – learning to breathe better is your best-friend for a healthy life!

 

 

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