If you’re familiar with any of my classes, you might have noticed that there is one thing that I often insist on: keep your ribs down. It’s the main component of the hollow body position, which plays a major role in many athletic endeavours, especially gymnastics. However, the reason why I place so much emphasis on this position - here, as much as in the classes - is not performance, but optimal breathing.
To do what it’s meant to, the diaphragm needs to be in its neutral position: a dome shape. When the diaphragm contracts, our lungs are pulled down and expand, drawing air into our body. When it relaxes, our lungs are deflated and air is pushed out of our body. We call these two basic actions inhalation and exhalation.
Pretty straightforward, right? Well, not always.
If not effectively opposed by our abdominal wall, our ribcage has the tendency to flare, normally on the left-hand side. Within a certain amount, this is normal. In many cases, however, this tendency becomes dysfunctional and generates problems. By flaring out, in fact, the diaphragm loses its dome shape and, with it, its ability to work as a breathing muscle (it essentially stiffens up and becomes a postural muscle). We find ourselves in a state of hyperinflation, a fancy term used to highlight the fact that our back is over-extended and our breathing is compromised.
In this scenario, we are unable to use our diaphragm. Without realising it, we adjust our postures and movements in ways that help us compensate for that, turning our neck and shoulder muscles into our main ‘inhalators’. This extra duty adds up to the already heavy workload of these structures, causing local stiffness and soreness, and a general increase of tension and stress. We find ourselves in constant “fight or flight” mode, which causes chronic anxiety and depletes our energy levels, making us sleepy and drowsy.
What should we do? The short answer is: we need to breathe out - more effective, more consistently.
For that to happen, our ribcage and spine have to allow our diaphragm to assume its natural dome shape and work as it should. Once the shape has been restored, we can practise our diaphragmatic (or belly) breathing to get a sense of what it means to breathe without using neck and shoulders. Once also good function has been re-established, we can get fancy and reinforce it through some exercises.
The hollow body position mentioned initially is a good starting point: it activates the abdominal wall, especially oblique and transverse abdominal muscle. These muscles offer a dynamic control of the position of our ribcage, and, therefore, support the regular activity of our diaphragm.