I’ll admit I’ve never been the proudest breather in the yoga room but I’ve spent years working on it. I thought I had it down – recognizing that lovely ease of breath as I nestled in for savasana after a practice felt like proof of a job well done – deep, satisfying breath. And yet, a while back, the world, with its ever-generous nature, provided me with a new nudge toward discovery of balanced breath and all it can offer.
Enter Emily, a warm, enthusiastic, attentive and effusive student who turns up class after class with her mat in hand and a smile across her face. She asks questions, shares insights and brings joy to the studio and, yet, a certain pesky behavior persisted in her practice. Emily yawns during class. Repeatedly. She yawns through our opening classwork, in instructive pauses and in our lead up to savasana. During exertion, the yawning often ceases and my best guess is that she’s holding her breath during the toughest sequences in class. I also noted that during breathing practices, Emily would appear distracted, gaze out the window and generally check out of the instruction. This was the only time she demonstrated anything less than full engagement in class. All of these signs pointed to a breath dysfunction and a habit so deeply ingrained that Emily wasn’t even aware of its impact on her experience.
I began hunting through my textbooks, Yoga Tune Up® notes and internet research for lessons on breathing to see if I could help unravel this insidious habit that was living beneath the surface of Emily’s awareness. And, as often happens, my student became my teacher. I found that my very own breathing patterns were less than ideal. I discovered that my breath hovered within my chest during times of disconnection with my body – times when I was less aware or overwhelmed. My yogi-pride didn’t love these new findings but my diaphragm sure did!
What first revealed itself was a pattern of high and tight breathing. High and tight is a description for a boy’s very short haircut that doesn’t offer much movement because the hair is too short to shift. In the case of high and tight breath, the inhale reaches only as deep as the upper chest and loiters in the front ribs as though it has nowhere else to go, high in the chest and tight around the ribs. As this becomes habitual, it creates an unwelcome response in the body – jacking up the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the fight-or-flight response in the body (The Roll Model, p. 158).
The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration and is knit along the inner edges of your ribcage – serving as the cap for your abdominal cavity and the floor of your thoracic cavity. This dual positioning coupled with the plunging action of the muscle during inhale should create sensation in both the chest and the abdomen. For day-to-day activity, “breathing should be slow, smooth and constant, moderate in the amount of air taken in and involve three-dimensional movement of the rib cage”. (Mary Bond, The New Rules of Posture, p. 83) This high and tight breath I was observing in Emily and, at times, in myself was eliminating the three dimensional movement in the ribcage, providing only minimum amount of air and producing rapid, shallow breath. According to Mary Bond in “The New Rules of Posture”, “many people move only the front of the rib cage when they breathe…. expanding only in the front shortens and tightens muscles along the spine.” Unfortunately, this causes a loss of sensation in the backside of the torso during the respiratory cycle and leaves the individual exhausted and under-oxygenated.
For Emily, it was important to begin to sense the breath at the back of the ribs, awaken the muscles of the posterior ribcage and train the breath cycle to become three dimensional, slower and smoother.
Later this week, I’ll outline the tools we employed to move away from high and tight breath and toward deep and domed breath using self massage, awareness of movement in her back ribs and practice, practice, practice.
Enjoyed this article? Read Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga Tune Up®: Match Made in Heaven
High and tight…yes indeed that is my default when I either check out or am stressed. Fortunately, now I am aware of this pattern and am able to identify and address it. Sometimes it can take a little while to become aware I am able to correct this pattern almost right away. I try to examine what the trigger was and usually learn something new about myself along the way. 🙂
I like the reference to three dimensional breath. It is a very relatable description. Thank you.
This is amazing!
I love the way you observed your students to allowed them to teach you…
So many people have the pattern of high and tight breathing! Such an important topic! Thank you!
This article hits it in the head (or the diaphragm for that matter). Understanding your breath pattern and figuring out where your breath gets stuck or becomes sticky is key to becoming mindful of where you hold some of your tension and how you can start to break poor breathing habits and eventually develop techniques to guide your breath to relieve other areas of tension. My breathing pattern became very apparent to me as I was taking my Kundalini training. Oddly, I had a great in breath but my breath would get ‘stuck’ at the top and would strain on… Read more »
Such a great example of how our habit patterns become so deeply embedded and unconscious that it takes sometimes looking critically at someone else in order to realize what’s going on inside us as well! In this way, we are always humbled in learning from one another. I feel like I am making new (and often unflattering) discoveries about my body, breath, alignment, etc nearly every day. My most recent one was realizing that I am not breathing deeply (or fully) at night when I sometimes find myself (unconsciously) clenching in my jaw. As soon as I realized that upon… Read more »
Thank you for sharing your story, it’s amazing how many time our students become our teachers as our own patterns are reflected back to us. I enjoyed your description of breathing.
Since I am training for a 350+ mile bike ride this summer breathing has become even more important (cuz life isn’t a good enough reason to breathe deep, haha) I too notice my lack of deepness and expansion around my whole torso. Couple that with a stuffy nose while on the bike and my deep breathing goes out the door. When I am clear to breathe fully in through my nose, use my whole torso, and out through my mouth my heart rate slows and I can recover quicker after bouts of high exertion. Thanks for all the great reminders!
I cue breathing throughout the practice as students get so caught up in the poses that the forget to synchronize breath with movement. There’s never to much cueing when it comes to breathing! I often exaggerate so that they can hear me breath and they get into the habit. I was once myself “not” a belly breather, but that all changed with time as yoga permeated my life. Yet I sympathize with my students who are upper thorax breathers. Even if it is for the 90 minutes of the weekly practice, they get to experience deep belly breathing and hopefully… Read more »
Breathing efficiently is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned and have to actively remind myself to do often during the day. Thank you for drawing such clear attention to this practice we tend to overlook or take for granted when not on a yoga mat or meditation cushion. Will be sharing this!
Very interesting. I sometimes find myself yawning in classes that I take. Mainly during vinyasa classes or classes with lots of core work. You just brought awareness to an issue I didn’t even know I had. Looking forward to reading about the tools you came up with.
I never knew how important breath was until taking the Core Immersion this past summer. It opened a whole new world of “blindspots” for me. I now use the Coregeous regularly and offer it to anyone who is willing to listen. Paying attention to my breath and all the restricted areas within my respiratory muscles has changed the way I think and teach!
That’s amazing. I tend to do the same thing because my background is weightlifting so there holding and compressing is the name of the game. Thanks for the insight, it’s definitely something that I am working and will continue to work on!
Holy crap I love this!! I’ve often wondered why I do the same thing (holding breath during challenge sequences). I wasn’t sure If it was a lack of ‘cardio’ ability, strength or just a lack of discipline to training (and calming my mind). Than you for this!
I think this happens to a lots of us… and I think that know more bout anatomy and biomechanics would help a lot of people.
My ”haha!” moment was when I discovered that there actually were intercostal muscles… I know right? Realizing that helped me to be able to use them in my breathing and it’s helped my a lot to take the stress out of my upper chest.
Just found this blog & it is AMAZING! You’re an inspiration. Keep up the good work!
Great insights Kate, looking forward to reading the second article. As someone who has worked in and around trauma and worn torn countries and with trauma sensitive populations, the high and tight breathing is also something that can indicate trauma holding in the body. While not everyone has been exposed to war or conflict related trauma, as we always say in YTU everyone has trauma which is stored in the body. Sometimes that is locked in blind spots and sometimes I think it has a profound effect on breathing including the high and tight syndrome
Great post! I’ve been a “high and tight” breather all my life. I attribute at least some of this bad pattern to having pneumonia to the point of being hospitalized several times as a toddler. Through sports, yoga and other activities, some instructors/coaches did recognize my breathing pattern but offered no advice on how to break the pattern. Eventually, in my 40’s a P.T. did recognize the issue and offererd constructive advice to break the pattern. I still fall back into it at times but not like I used to. Thank you for getting the word out and helping people… Read more »
Great insights, as always, Kate! I look forward to chatting about this at our next get-together! I was just talking with someone yesterday about how to get students to understand (and thus become more interested) in breath practices. Soooo important!