Me: Exhale to squeeze all of the air out of your belly and lungs.
Me: Great! Now keep your belly engaged and take a deep breath in.
Student: (Holds breath for a few seconds) Is that even possible?
Me: Sure, you just need to breath into your ribs. They’re not actually a cage, you know.
Student: Okay? How…
I can’t say that I’ve had this conversation verbatim, but as a Pilates teacher, I have had many versions of it over the years. Getting my students to breathe deeply without losing their core support is a huge part of my practice. Understanding the ability of the ribs to move with the breath (both intellectually and physically) has helped both me and my students unlock our true lung capacity.
This starts with unlearning the idea of the ribs as a ‘cage.’
Ribcage is the unfortunate layman’s term for our thorax, the bony shelter of the lungs and heart. Its protective nature showcases the intelligent design of the human body – we all have a built-in, sturdy line of defense around three of our most vital organs. But calling the thorax a cage belies its true nature. The bones of the ribs and spine might create a cage-like structure, but unlike the empty space between the rigid bars of a prison cell, between each costal bone are two small sets of muscles, the internal and external intercostals.
The presence of muscles can only mean one thing – movement!
So yes, the thorax can actually change shape. By the simple act of breathing, no less (no ungainly contortions necessary). The external intercostals inflate the space between the ribs to allow more fresh air in. The internal intercostals slide the ribs back together to expel the air out. They work in concert with a host of other muscles, but most importantly, the diaphragm. The ability of the intercostals to fully contract and lengthen directly relates to the diaphragm’s capacity for the same.
Beyond improving the anatomical mechanics of breathing, having more movement and freedom available in the ribs (and around the heart and lungs) can free up tension on many levels.
Some great Yoga Tune Up® poses that will help you embody the mobility of the ribs and intercostals are:
Jithara Parivartonasana Variation 1 Minivini