Updated: Apr 21
and can we breathe well in that shape?
Many of us learned how to hold our bodies from family or authority figures at a young age. "Pull your shoulders back!" "Don't slouch!," we were told. And so, we learned to stand, and sit, with our ribcage forward, and our shoulders "back." In the gym, we might sometimes hear "proud chest" as a cue not to slouch forward.
We tend to think of this as "standing up straight," or having "good posture." But if we take a look at this image of a woman sitting in meditation, we can see that there's quite a bit of spinal extension going on-- she's in a seated backbend. It's tough to see in this picture, but this is often paired with a forward movement of the ribcage (Katy Bowman covers this well here).
If you're a yoga person, it's likely you've been further indoctrinated into this school of thinking. While modern postural yoga is full of hip flexion (think forward folds like paschimottanasana or baddha konasana), it has an interesting bias against spinal flexion (that is, rounding your spine).
For years, I was taught to "flatten my back." Teachers cautioned classes not to let the spine round forward (which it will naturally do-- especially the thoracic spine) in any seated forward fold. When I became a teacher myself, I continued to pass on this advice. In fact, one of my primary cues for ardha uttanasana, the "halfway-lift" position that comes after the first forward fold in a sun salutation. "Inhale, flat back!" I said, over and over again.
What I didn't realize at the time was that "flattening" my back was actually making it more difficult to breathe well. We need an appropriate amount of flexion in our mid back in order to be able to expand our lungs posteriorly. This is one of the core concepts of Postural Restoration, which I use to work with clients who are stuck in these predictable human patterns (hint-- that's all of us!).
Let's take another look at our meditator from earlier.
Ideally, when we breathe in, we should feel expansion in the front ribs, side ribs, and in the back of the ribcage as well. We should also experience a sense of expansion through the belly, side waist, and even into the lower back. (If you just tried this and couldn't make it happen, don't panic-- this is something you can work on!).
If we are only able to expand our breath into the chest or belly (another common yoga cue), we're not able to achieve optimal core stability or take a full breath. And because we're not just a bunch of disconnected parts, but a fluid, dynamic system, there are multiple cascading effects that result. For example, our scapula (shoulder blades) depend on the placement of the rib cage (expanding backward) in order to hold their most functional position. Our pelvis is less likely to oscillate naturally through its full ranges of motion. We may find ourselves with discomfort or injuries from the feet, to the pelvic floor, all the way up to the neck.
the nervous system implications, tho
There's one more piece to explore here, and it's an important point. When we get "stuck" in spinal extension with our chest forward, we're reinforcing the patterns of a stressed-out nervous system. This is a natural position for us to take when our systems are overwhelmed as it can feel like "readiness" in our bodies-- think "fight or flight." But it's not an ideal place to live. As we've seen, it's difficult to breathe here. We may use more of our accessory breathing muscles (neck, shoulders, upper chest). As a result, we feel like something's wrong, because our body's acting like something's wrong.
When our system has established a pattern like this, it often does so because it's feels like the safest place for us. Think of it as an adaptive strategy that our body is using to help us manage the challenges of our lives. That's not a bad thing-- but we want to be able to move out of this strategy and find another one when we're not dealing with an actual crisis.
One of the first things I do with clients who are experiencing anxiety or feeling like they can't get a deep breath is to help them to turn off this pattern by inhibiting the muscles that keep us in spinal extension.
We can do this by elevating the pelvis and feet and taking time to allow the lower back to relax toward the floor. This can take a long time, especially if this pattern feels safe, familiar and comfortable for your system (as it does for many of us)! Don't try to do this while you listen to the news or doom scroll your social media. Remember, we're turning off a stress pattern here, and we need to find safety in our systems as we do that.
You can watch a demonstration in the instagram video embedded here.
Want to learn more about the dynamic patterns of trauma in our bodies and breath?
My friend and colleague, Jennifer Snowdon and I are partnering for Re-Inspired: A Somatic Study of Traumatic Stress and the Breath beginning May 10. Click here to read more and reserve your spot today.