Help Posture and Help the Breath
Most people tend to think of breathing and posture as two separate functions or conditions of the body. I believe, however, that they are inextricably connected with one another – actually both different aspects of our overall coordination that cannot be separated. Here’s an example:
Imagine a person stooped over, collapsed in the chest, spine compressed – a case of classic “bad posture.” But posture is not the only issue. With all that collapse and compression the whole breathing apparatus is compromised. The ribs don’t have room to move, so the lungs don’t have space to expand fully, and the diaphragm muscle is also restricted – all of which lead to problems with breathing, including shortness of breath. So – to solve the breathing problem, we need to actually solve the posture issue (or vice versa – to solve the poor posture we need to improve the breathing coordination). Coming out of the collapse and allowing our full stature gives the space necessary for our breathing apparatus to function properly.
The problem is that for most people this is not as easy as it sounds. Habits, created over many years and for many reasons, become solidified in our bodies and are resistant to change, to say the least. In fact, if you’ve been walking around hunched over for years it probably feels normal, even upright to you. Or if you are aware of it, you may pull yourself upright using lots of tension, in a way that is not only uncomfortable and un-maintainable, but is also just as restrictive for the breath.
I believe the Alexander Technique is one method that provides a very effective answer to these problems. Although more often known nowadays for its help with improving posture, the founder of the Technique, F. M. Alexander (1869-1955), originally promoted his method as “respiratory re-education” and was known by his students as the “Breathing Man!”
Through the Alexander Technique you gradually become more aware of what your body is actually doing and learn ways to change those habits that are not serving you well. This leads to improvements in overall coordination, including (of course) both posture and breathing.
Try this experiment: Let yourself round into a real good slump. Become aware of your breath. Does it feel shallow or full? Then slowly and gently (no pulling or tightening please!) bring yourself out of the slump. Notice your breathing now. Is there a difference?
Had you thought about how your posture affects your breathing before? Could you notice any differences in the little experiment. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
I’ve had a couple of people point out that I walk bent over like you tend to do as you get older. That really upset me and I began a concerted effort to walk more upright and to sit more upright. What I have noticed is how my back doesn’t bother me now and I can walk further and stand more without any back pain. I never thought about slumping affecting the breathing however and it makes perfect sense. I will experiment with the breathing in the slumped ( which I had been doing when on the computer but which I was also being mindful of the last couple of months) and the upright positions. Thanks for this.
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I firmly believe that what we often think of as part of the aging process (the bent over posture you describe) is more the results of habits of a lifetime. We can all think of examples of elderly people with tremendous poise – so cultivate habits that will promote that instead. It sounds like you are doing great job, and it doesn’t surprise me that back pain receded and stamina increased as you chose move in a more upright way. You have likely been helping your breathing too 🙂
I remember my GP said: Not breathing correctly can upset your normal body chemistry. Your blood oxygen and blood carbon dioxide levels begin to fluctuate under stress and certain organs systems become affected. This manifests itself in panic, anxiety and stress. I will try your experiment !!!! Thank you
Yes – I think breathing effects everything! So allowing a more upright (but NOT rigid) posture will only help you have access to a fuller, more natural breath.
I have lived a long time with weak posture, which I also remember in my mother! I think my body discomfort in general contributed to this. In recent years of working out I’ve been much more aware of posture, my shoulder alignment, and other elements, but I’m not sure I’ve thought about posture and breathing. Of course you are right–how can we breathe if we are compressing our ribs so much? Thanks for the info – seems to obvious now that you point it out.
The Reflective Writer
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Before I trained to teach the Alexander Technique, I had never thought about the connection between breath and posture before either. So much of it is common sense – we just need the information!
In some schools of thought alignment trumps posture. In both cases, impaired breathing is the result. The collapsed posture is also associated with visceral imbalance and trauma (vagal nerve). Whatever the origin, our lungs take a hit which gradually affects our ability to swallow properly. I’m always working on my posture, alignment, and breath. It’s not easy. As I did the exercise, I could feel how tight my ribs are and how I must make a conscious to expand laterally with each breath.
Maureena Bivins, PhD
Acupuncture & Somatic Therapy
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Yes, in lots of ways I like the word alignment better too. So many people try and achieve “good posture” through rigidity and tension, which is not healthy at all. Maybe the word “alignment” would be less likely to cause that, I’m not sure. Great that you could notice the tightness in your ribs. Just being aware of the lateral movement (and don’t forget the movement in your back too) will help.
I agree, Imogen, that the parallels in our work is exciting and fun. In qigong, we talk about being grounded through the tail bone and lifted through the crown of the head (as though connected to your own personal star), which opens up space for the lungs to move freely and the heart to express itself. I begin many of the sitting meditations in my class with this very exercise, going from slumped to vertical like a flower stem extending and opening the flower (head) to the sun. Thank you for such beautifully accessible and wise description of the inter-relationship between alignment/posture and the vitality of breath
I love the imagery of the flower extending up and opening – I feel like that image/idea could help people not to stiffen as they do come into the upright – the pitfall of trying to “sit up straight!”
As I was reading this I resembled the photo of the man at his laptop at the top of your post. Not good! I did the experiment you described and really noticed how shallow my breath is while slumping – another not good! I generally have good posture, but working at a computer for most of the day, as most of us now do, can really wreak havoc with proper alignment. I have to remind myself to sit up straight many times a day. Thanks for the reminder, Imogen!
It’s really good that you could notice the difference – that’s the start of being able to change (if we don’t notice, how can we change anything…). Working at the computer is a challenge for the best of us – it’s so easy to completely lose yourself in what’s going on on the screen, and forget that we’re actually have a body that needs looking after! I will be posting on this subject some time in the next few weeks 🙂
I’m sad to admit that I’ve had poor posture in recent years. I remember my dad would tell me when growing up, head up, put your shoulders back and stand tall. I seem to have worse posture when I’m wearing casual shoes or flip flops, but I do stand straight when I wear high heals. Not sure why that is. Thanks for this great reminder.
As I said to Cory, it’s good that you recognize you have problems with posture – without knowing that there is no possibility for change. When you do notice you’re slumping and want to do something about it, rather than stiffening up, I encourage to more think about flowing gently into the upright. If you use a lot of tension to pull yourself up, you’ll be stiff and rigid, and your breathing, among other things will be compromised. Vicki had a nice idea in her comment to think of yourself as a flower opening up in the sun – you could try that out!
Don’t much about Alexander Technique, but I know that Chiropractic and Pilates keep me upright and breathing free!
…much fighting with my laptop habits though…
Chiropractic and Pilates can both be very helpful. I think one thing Alexander Technique adds is probably a more mindful aspect. And – I am planning a series of posts on working on a computer/laptop – much as we love them, it’s an activity that causes people all sorts of problems…
that might separate the Alexander Technique from the modalities you mentioned: less “fighting”. Also, I feel I have to add-be careful of anyone making quick, jerking movements with your head and neck. I just met yet another person who suffered from a chiropractic adjustment (4 years ago.) It’s rare, but it happens.
I can feel the difference in breathing with a change in posture – and definitely with any level of stress. I have to remind myself to adjust how I’m standing or sitting and remember to breathe! LOL! I agree with your comment that often these postural habits need to be relearned and that takes time… Brandy 🙂
Well, stress – that’s a whole other issue… But just keeping the breath in mind, and remembering to breathe out if we do feel stressed, can really help. And you are right, postural habits (as are most habits) are very strong, and it takes a while to relearn a more natural way of moving. 🙂
I hadn’t really made the connection between posture and breathing, but I know that when I want to take a really deep breath, the first thing I do is correct my posture. Usually this happens during the day while I’m working…I scoot back in my chair, plant my feet firmly, push my shoulders back and inhale. A couple of times of doing that does wonders for how I feel. Now, that you’ve helped me see the clear connection, I’m going to work on my posture that much more!
It seems like your body knew it instinctively even though you hadn’t put it together mentally, so to speak. Glad I helped make the connection clearer. Try exhaling first next time you’re focusing on breathing (check out my blog on deep breathing exercises for more information) – it can help the breath be even more effective. Also, when you work on your posture, I encourage you to perhaps think of upward flow as a way to encourage you to release tension as you become more upright.
After watching myself today I realized I am bent over more than I was aware. Hum. So my blood oxygen and lungs are affected and I can feel the difference when I consciously sit up straighter (without strain). Looks like the new year has brought me a gift of awareness, thank you.
Happy New Year! Awareness is the key to change 🙂
Imogen, the issues of posture become very clear when you describe them.
Thanks so much, Abigail.
(as I sit here slouched on the couch, lol) I know I need to sit/stand straight. I know it improves my breathing which affects my other body functions as well as keeping my spine in alignment to prevent nerves from not working properly. But at home, I like kicking my feet up. Before I take the stage, when I’m singing (even in rehearsal), I stand straight, feet on the floor, concentrating on my breath and diaphragm. I know how, but now it’s being more aware. It also makes me focus on my core strength. Hmm, maybe I need to find my exercise ball again.
There’s nothing wrong with “kicking your feet up” – as long as that’s not your only way of being! It’s when something becomes a chronic habit that problems arise. The body is about moving in all manner of ways. The problem is that more and more of us get stuck in a specific, held positions that are not doing us any good. And the classic computer “hunch” is well known to be problematic. Sounds like you have good awareness when singing (I’m sure you couldn’t sing well all slumped over) – maybe you just need a little of that to transfer to more everyday activities. (And those big exercise balls are great!)
I hadn’t really thought about posture effecting breathing but of course, it makes perfect sense. One of the things I tend to do is tighten my shoulders so they are somewhat raised. When I notice it (not often enough) and relax them even a little, it must have an effect on my breathing. It is something I’m going to pay closer attention to.
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When you notice your raised shoulders, try exhaling gently. I bet it would help them (and your breath) let go. Seems to me raised shoulders often go hand in hand with holding the breath.
I had never thought about my posture in relation to breathing. But it makes absolute sense. A few years ago I sprained my trapezius muscle and every time I took a breathe a huge pain shot thru my back and shoulders. I need to be more aware of my posture when I’m working on my laptop in random places. Maybe I’ll tune into my breathing for a clue when I’ve been “slacking”. 😉
My father just broke a rib, so breathing is very painful for him. It makes it obvious, in an extremely unpleasant way, how much of our structure is involved with the process. I hope you are able to tune into your breath a bit more. It can be a great guide to us to notice what’s going on in our bodies.
I’ve always been one to check my posture. Here lately having to correct it a lot. I loved to sing and dance so breathing & posture are at the front of my physical mind.
Singing and dancing both great things for healthy posture and breathing. What if we just sing and dance our way through life – I’m betting there would be fewer postural problems… 🙂
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When I put my neck back to straighten it out it feels so much better as well but with my stigmatism, I can’t see so well and glasses and lenses are not an option for me. What can I do?
Hi Mariam, Thanks for your comment. I wonder if there’s a way for you to get closer to the screen (is that what the issue is?) without scrunching your neck? I like to “hinge” from my hip joints so my whole torso leans forward, rather than jutting my head out on its own, which leaves my neck long. In addition, whatever position you find yourself in, just adding a thought like “My neck is free” (with no pressure to do anything about it, just acknowledging a possibility) can be helpful in lessening tension. I hope that helps.
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