Me: Exhale to squeeze all of the air out of your belly and lungs.

Student: Pffffffffffffftt.

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:

Tubular Core

Boomerang

Sidewinder

Jithara Parivartonasana Variation 1 Minivini

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Alyssa

Great article to those who haven’t learned this yet. I was one of those Pilates students who had to learn to contract the abs while breathing in and it was such a good discovery of the use of the space in my thorax. Not only can I breathe better, practicing this releases tension in my “ribs.”

Karine Himbeault

After completing the first day of the YTU teacher training, I have to say that I better understand the rib cage as being a flexible and malleable structure, influenced by the way that we breathe as well as the way that we move into space.

Margaret

My ribs are NOT a cage!!! Does that ever put breathing into perspective- external and internal intercostal muscles can make more space to breathe better- thank you for this easy to understand explanation

Valérie Lavigne

Hi!
I love the title! It’s funny and true!
It’s essential to move this bone to be able to move freely and breath!

Thank you!

Amber Green

I have come to realize recently that I have not paid enough attention to the movement of my upper torso. There have been times during dance class where my ribs have felt like a cage. My tight internal and external intercostals have felt confining and taken my breath away, inhibiting me from moving with my full range of motion.

Isabelle Cote

Melinda, I love your analogy of the cage … which is not one! Your unique and clear way of expressing point of view is like a beautiful revelation for me. 🙂

This is a protection that allows movement! I love that ! In these words, in your words, it’s a better understanding of the involvement of the thorax. And with that new view, came the potential to breathe more deeply, without losing their core support (!), and access all our lung capacity.

Inspire-Expire ! 🙂

Heidi Schaul-Yoder

Yes! I love helping people unlock different breathing patterns that haven’t been activated. Being able to breathe in different ways can be a great key to more body freedom in general, thanks for this great explanation.

Georgia Lowe

I teach lots of rib and heart opening in the winter (to keep the breath deep and stay calm and content during the darker days) but I always emphasize stretch = more space for breath. What I’ve been missing is the movement of the intercostals themselves as integral to the inhalation and exhalation. That is a more refined way of looking at it that I hope to share with my students. I think it will be really useful and instructive, thank you!

Delfina Bonilla-Lopez

I’m finding this quote to be so true for me:

“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.”

I’ve been diligently doing some YTU breathwork correctives and have noticed not only a looseness at my chest (normally super tense) but also at my hips. IIt all makes so much sense now since the diaphragm and it’s tails work in a relationship with the muscles of the shoulder girdle and the pelvic girdle.

Kate H

I go back and forth with struggling with how to best breathe while working out. Yes, we want the deeper supportive core muscles activated while we are moving to protect our spine and create better stability through the body. I’ve been cued too many times with a scooping or belly toward the spine motion that makes my breath feel completely stifled. I find the tubal core cue is better combined with the rib cage movement.

Kerstin

I love the imagery you used in this article – our ribcage is designed to help free us, not confine us! Breath is such an important component of a healthful, present life yet so many people breathe on autopilot and don’t ever take a complete, full breath. I’ve found it so amazing how much more breath is possible with just a little YTU work. These poses bring so much awareness to the movement of the body during breath; it’s really eye-opening and empowering to discover all the ways in which the breath moves the body and in which the body… Read more »

Julia Lamm

Thank you for explaining intercostal muscles and how to use them to breath into the ribs. It made sense to me and felt good to direct breath into the ribs while the belly stays engaged. Yes I could totally sense that rib cage is not a cage and could move into expanding and contracting. It is new to me in my training of become YTU instructor. It feels good to discover more functional breathing for my body.

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Lisa Hebert

This is wonderfully written- well said! Words really do have the power of suggestion, perhaps limiting how we believe a body part can, or can’t function. So often we think on single planes when we begin our movement explorations. It can be such a revelation for students to realize that their lungs and ribcage are actually 3 dimensional and do not just move up and down with our breath.

John Menist

I totally agree that changing the way you think about your ribs (and the rest of your body for that matter) can make a huge difference in improving your performance, breath, flexibility, and strength. Whether teaching or just working on yourself, I agree that it helps so much to remember that the intercostal muscles line the space between each rib, allowing for significant movement as your breathe in and out. Next time I’m in class, I’ll be thinking of my intercostals as I breathe more deeply than I might if I imagined my ribs as a static cage. Thanks for… Read more »

Amanda Crutcher

thanks Melinda. it is wonderful to know that simply breathing creates space in the ribs. deep breathing becomes a stretch and encourages exploration of the many techniques of pranayama.

Meghan

Great article dons testing how we can engage and move. I think that many people get stuck in the idea that they must be fixed if they are engaged when actually it is easy to be engaged and dynamic, especially while breathing and moving!

Lisa Swanson

Ah yes, INHALE as you open the ribcage laterally .. EXHALE as you guide that cage closed .. ARGH, that’s how I say it.
I like what you’re saying here .. the ribs .. not a CAGE. It does make that area sound like it doesn’t MOVE! Maybe taking that part of the word out .. CAGE .. will help my Pilates students find the breath, connect the diaphragm to the core muscles, and stabilize their spine for the exercises.
Thanks 😉

Cynthia Bunt-Gardner

I frequently instruct my client to inhale and expand the ribs, front back and sides. I have them place their hand on their chest and instruct them to breath there and feel the chest rise. We then move to a position where the hands are wrapped around under the arm pits and I instruct them to breath into their side ribs. And lastly, I instruct them to breath into their back ribs and feel the ribs press into the mat. It seems to help them learn to breath more fully in thoracic breathing if they can feel the ribs expanding… Read more »

catherine yiu

I loved the way you explained this. I knew there were muscles inbetween the rib cages, however i never illusatrated it in my head when asked to break into your rib cage. Being able to visionalize muscles expanding and widening as i breathe is so helpful to understanding why we should strengthen thoraxic breathing.

Laurie Streff Kostman

Great reminder and description of how the intercostal muscles create movement when activating thoracic breathing. Like Nikki,I also suffered from severe asthma as a child which encouraged a lot of shallow breathing in my early years. Now that I’ve tuned into the ability of using my ‘lungs’ to breath rather than just my ‘belly’ I’ve found that I am able to take deeper breaths with stronger and more pliable internal and external intercostals. The bonus? Having a stronger tubular core with those ‘beefed up’ intercostals, and a hightened awareness of them as well!

Jessica Sleiman

Again, great article about the importance of proper breathing! That’s one thing we definitely take for granted, and we do not realize the big difference that breathing correctly can make. It’s wonderful that you focus on that with your students, because it truly gives much better results during stretching, work outs, and life! Especially for someone like me who tenses up in my chest a lot; I just have to remind myself to keep breathing through that ribcage!

Maryelen

So important, necessary for relief, but not easy to do. We’re so used to locking it down, or not really thinking about it at all. A must learn skill for twists, inversions, and general spine health. Thank you for the reminder!

Santiago

Yesterday was the first day I learned about thoracic breathing and how it differs from belly breathing and I cant agree more with this article. Once I began to focus on my ribcage during inhaling, I could notice myself actively directing my breath to expand the ribs and grow out instead of down onto the belly and core. All that is needed is to believe that the ribs CAN move in this way!

Nikki Wong

Thoracic breathing has always been easy for me to locate due to having asthma as a toddler thru my adolescent years. I always remembered that I had to work extra hard to expand my breath against what seemed like a tight chest. However, I find that this way of breathing is pretty challenging for most of my yoga students. Many of them are accustomed to belly breathing but when a student finds this movement in the thoracic with their ujjayi, their eye balls light up, their body responds and all of a sudden ease is possible in their asanas.

Rachel

I am loving your articles – thank you! I wish my therapy ball from yoga-tune-up could get between my ribs! They are so tight! 🙂

Helen McAvoy

Terrific! This is one of the first things I had to relearn when I began taking YTU …and am still mastering as a YTU instructor. A whole class just on thoracic breathing is a definite to people unaware. Thank you!!! I will pass this on!!