A long sighing exhale might not be working for you. Try this instead...Jul 11, 2023
Are you doing positional breathing drills and really struggling with the exhale? Have you been told to take a long open mouth sigh but it just doesn't' feel like you can get a good exhale and you're struggling to get your ribs to move back and down without over using the abdominal muscles?
Here is a post I made on IG that explains how changing an exhale can make a huge difference in how the ribs and diaphragm interact.
For years I went with the standard long sighing exhale because that is what I was taught was the right way to exhale to improve the apposition (doming up) of the diaphragm, and it's how I taught my clients and my students and how I exhaled myself.
As time went on and I began teaching more and more students and doing more and more consults and case studies, sometimes 15 a week, I started to realize that for some people there was a huge disconnect and I began experimenting with different forms of exhalation and even inhalation strategies. I realized these strategies were starting to work really well, and it wasn't just for the people that struggled, they were working better for me and also for people that didn't struggle.
Most of these breathing drills were inspired by the work I was doing in trauma healing with my Coach, Emily Hightower. The primary goal was to tune in and pay attention to the breath to create a physiological response that improved my stress tolerance and calmed my "monkey" brain as she calls it. My initial breath hold test when I started, (note, this was at a time of intense stress and significant PTSD symptoms from my sons accident), was around 10-15 seconds. With time and work on the breath I was able to get to about 50-60 seconds. One day it dawned on me that combining these breath practices with my positional breathing work may be extremely beneficial.
If you are currently doing positional breathing drills like this 90 90 wall drill or this chest wall expansion drill and you are using the commonly prescribed, long sighing exhale, it may be worth exploring a different strategy. (These drills are part of my courses Scapulothoracic and Lumbopelvic Foundations, which have over 70 drills each designed to restore better joint position and function.)
Here are two breath strategies I have used successfully in conjunction with positional breathing drills for myself and for many of my clients:
I first began humming as a regular practice years ago after taking Seth Oberst's Course in 2019. The ideas was to inhale through the nose and then exhale using a humming sound for as long as you could and repeat this over and over again for as many breaths as you choose. Because your vagus nerve runs through both the larynx and pharynx in your throat, humming creates a vibration that stimulates your vagus nerve and can increase your vagal tone (aka the health of your vagus nerve!). When you hum, you induce parasympathetic dominance, which means you move into chill mode. While there is nothing wrong with being in a more sympathetic state, when we can access more parasympathetic drive we can decrease muscle tone, increase tolerance to CO2 and lengthen our exhales. For a detailed understanding and deep dive into the neurophysiology behind this, click here. This can enhance our positional breathing drills by allowing for better exhalation via the apposition of the diaphragm to allow for full excursion, rather than relying on accessory muscles of respiration to try to force the air out. When our diaphragm can lead the exhale and change in rib position we will usually see better outcomes. This also helps our muscles to lengthen and relax which can help restore better length tension relationships throughout the body.
Choose any of the drills you are currently doing and substitute this exhale. You can also use this anytime you feel stressed or for recovery without the drills. I made it a habit for years to do this for 10 minutes on my drive to work every morning.
2. Waterfall Breath
I learned the waterfall breath from my coach Emily who I mentioned above. It was taught to me as creating a waterfall on the exhale. Like many breath practices, it's not so much how you are breathing as it is the awareness around and tuning into the breath itself. My practice with this breath was to inhale through my nose and then exhale 1/3 of the air out, pause, another 1/3 of the air out, pause, then let all the air out. I set a time for 5-10 minutes, found a quiet spot and just breathed.
I began playing around with this same concept in my positional breathing drills, first on the exhale, then on the inhale and I started noticing an amazing difference. I shared this with my Empowered Performance Academy, and they too started sharing their success. Initially I noticed that the exhale waterfall, slowed down the exhale, eliciting a better diaphragm apposition and less facilitation of external obliques and rectus abdominus to "push the air out". Eventually I began using it in the inhale, same concept but slightly different application: 1/3 in, pause, 1/3 in, pause, all the air in. This became a huge game changer! I could feel the expansion of my rib cage and the pause allowed for more time under tension, not unlike using tempos or isos in my strength training, both of which can be powerful for creating compliance of the tissues. The more thoughtful inhale also prevented accidentally overusing my neck and upper trap muscles to try to pull too much air in. As someone with a more narrow infrasternal angle (rib cage angle) I could feel a better opening of the ribs front to back and side to side.
I began to formulate another hypothesis, that this slower inhale also mimicked some of the benefits of a breath hold. When the breath is held, carbon dioxide builds up in the blood and causes the red blood cells to offload blood oxygen to the body, open blood vessels, improve circulation and increase oxygenation of the body and brain. This improves tolerance to lower O2 and higher CO2. You can read more about this in this article from the Oxygen Advantage.
You can use this in your positional drills on both the inhale or exhale. I recommend trying it both ways and seeing what feels best for your body. This may also be a good breath practice to strengthen tolerance to CO2.
As someone who has studied the role of breath and position in restoring movement options for some time now, and has just begun diving into the neurophysiology of breath a bit deeper, I am convinced that it is time for a crossroads and a meeting of these two worlds.
Sometimes we may need to lead with a mindful breath practice without the intricacies and demands of positional drills and sometimes we may need to lead with positional drills to be able to create a mindfulness practice.
I will be breaking this down in another post as I work to solidify my thoughts on this for the general public and not just my students, so stay tuned!
If you are looking to further your understanding of these concepts with continuing education, make sure you are on the waitlist for my Empowered Performance Course. I have some big news coming soon.
If you are looking to help your own body and enhance your movement then sign up for my Free 5 Day Fundamentals Course. I teach you the fundamental breath and movement concepts I teach to every single client and student I work with. Also, be on the lookout for big news regarding this course!