Here’s one I’ve been playing around with for a while now.
In my teaching experience, both in what I teach, what I’ve learned, and all the classes I’ve ever taken, I’ve always been instructed to do my yoga backbends on an exhale. About 3 months ago my amazing Omie, Lauren Sanford, told me that during her teacher training in India, they had everyone inhale on backbends.
Blew my freakin mind.
She said that it was because it aligned better with proper diaphragmatic breathing. I remember scoffing, and going yea right, exhaling down “engages my core” which “keeps me safe in the backbend.” Oh man was I wrong…
Today were going to learn all about proper diaphragmatic breathing and how this single little bit of information leads to all other movement via core stabilization. Then we’ll see just how amazing this whole “Inhale – Backbend” thing is because of the beautiful nature of anti-extension training for your abdominal muscles.
Take a deep breath, let’s plunge in!
The Diaphragm lies right underneath your lungs. It looks like a giant dome and connects to the bottom of the rib cage, and the spine.
- When it contracts it allows air to flow into your lungs. By pulling down.
- When it relaxes it allows air to leave the lungs. By lifting up.
Here’s a cool .gif on how it works:
When you breathe you should see the belly rise slightly when you take a breath in, and see it fall when you breathe out. If you look at a young child, you’ll definitely see this.
Many adult people use their chest to breathe. You can see this when they inhale and their chest rises as the intercostal muscles contract. The belly also pulls in, which looks nice in a mirror, but there’s less oxygen going to the lungs and the diaphragm gets weak. This results in instability in the core which makes you much more prone to injury. This is why most low back pain recovery starts with proper breathing.
So stop shallow breathing from your chest, and let’s start using our diaphragm.
How to Diaphragmatically Breathe:
Most rehabilitative programs start you off lying on your back and have you focus on lifting your belly when you inhale, and contracting it when you exhale.
This is great and there’s plenty of literature on it.
I personally like the Double Exhale method. I start off all of my classes with at least two rounds of this breath because it works really great in yoga, plus it has the added benefit of restoring the small amounts of rotation your ribs should be doing when you breathe.
- Take a deep breath in
- Exhale out all of your air
- Pause at the bottom of the first exhale, and then exhale again plus contract your belly to push more air out
- Most important part: Now take a FULL inhale in.
Important note: these are FULL inhales, and FULL exhales. Try not to hold back here unless it starts hurting.
You’ve just used your diaphragm to breathe! Didn’t that feel great.
The anatomy behind what you just did was by doubling your exhale you allowed your diaphragm to lift all the way up to about Thoracic Vertebra 7-8 (which is what it should be doing). Usually it sits around T10-T12, and for most of us just stays there and never moves unless you start hiccuping. The full inhale after allowed it to fully contract and pull air into the deep reaches of the lungs. Plus the ribs started to move and come back alive, something really helpful if you sit all day at a desk hunched over.
Go through a few rounds, like 10 or so, of the Double Exhale Breath and then note how relaxed you feel.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also very relaxing. It’s something that animals do when they aren’t being chased or need to be alert (Sympathetic, flight or fight mode). When you deep breathe you stimulate your brainstem and your Parasympathetic, rest and digest, nervous system takes hold.
Take a deep breath, relax, let out some steam ;), and let’s link this all to our core.
Breathing and Core Stability:
The Diaphragm is a HUGE player in your core stability. It forms the top of the “box” of the core. The pelvic floor is the bottom, transverse abdominis the walls. Some throw the multifidi, QLs, and Internal and External Obliques into the walls of this box too.
A strong box needs a secure lid and very few people actually recruit their diaphragm when they breathe. This leads to weakness in the core, the very foundation of your stability. Recall from above that many people breathe from their chest, and use their rectus abdominis to suck their belly in when they inhale. Using the rectus abdominis to suck the belly in is essentially what we are doing when we exhale on a backbend.
Exhale – Backbend
When we exhale we release air from the thoracic cavity. This also results, with proper breathing, the belly to suck inward as both the diaphragm and the rectus abdominis contract. Most people DON’T have this level of awareness or control of their diaphgrams. Therefore, most people are using just their rectus abdominis when they breathe.
There’s a few things wrong with this picture in my opinion:
- The core is “unstable” without proper diaphgramatic control
- This ends up often times in hyperextension of the trunk in backbends due to imbalance between the weak abdominals and the stronger lumbar paraspinals.
- The lack of motion in the thoracic spine may also cause hyperextension. Since the intercostals are contracted on the exhale (or not moving at all due to faulty breathing), the thoracic cage is still, causing the extension to mostly occur in the thoracic-lumbar junction.
- Concentric (shortening) contraction of the rectus abdominis isn’t really what we want too.
All of these lead to hyperextension. For most of us this is also furthering the dominance that the lumbar paraspinals have over our abdominals. Given our societies “troll posture” (the forward flexed, internally rotated, position you’re probably reading this in) our cores are already weak, our lumbar paraspinals, their functional opposite, are dominating them in strength and creating a very common muscular imbalance.
So how do we get the abdominals balanced with the paraspinals and stabilize the core to prevent hyperextension in backbending?
It’s quite simple my dear Watson, we inhale on the backbend.
Inhale – Backbend:
Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know, (I didn’t up until a few weeks ago)
Your rectus abdominis is much better at anti-extension of the trunk then forward flexion.
Simply put your 6 pack is really good at resisting backbending.
Anti-extension training of the core is huge when it comes to sports performance. It’s based on the premise that the whole box of the core is active in extension, or a backbend. Having the belly “puff out” or eccentric (lengthening) contracting of the rectus abdominis is how we achieve this.
Try it, you’ll benefit more by watching someone do this, but you can always feel it for yourself too:
- Exhale – backbend first. Note how far back you/they go. Also note, did the knees bend? Did the pelvis swing forward? Did the arch occur in the thoracic spine, lumbar spine or hinge from the middle of the two?
- Inhale – backbend now. Did you feel how by pressing your belly out you where much more limited in how far you could go back? Did you feel your ribs and chest active in the backbend? Did you also see/feel any compensation in the knees, pelvis? Where did the arch occur then?
- Compare: which one felt more stable and controlled?
Pretty nuts right! If you did that by yourself go grab the next person you see and walk them through those. (I found that as long as you add the premise of “its for science” they’ll be totally okay with you experimenting with their body).
They’ll be all like “No problem…
Note the crazy difference between the two. If they’re isn’t a difference the question to ask is “is this person a normal human?” or “are they a dirty breathing cheater?” They may not be pressing their belly out on the inhale (or don’t know how to use their diaphgram), resulting in it mimicking the exhale or they’re inhuman and are unbound by the laws of human breathing and core control.
When it comes to backbending remember we want beautiful Roman arches in the spine, not nasty angles like triangles.
Practical Yoga Pose applications:
- Standing Backbend (works especially well here)
- Camel (works really nicely here)
- Reverse Plank
- Active Pigeon
- ANY TIME YOU SPINE GOES BACK INTO EXTENSION
Those are what I’ve experimented with, but I’d wager to say you can apply to just about any backbend in the yoga world. For my non yoga readers, given how yoga geared this article is I’m honestly surprised you’ve read this far, now go take a yoga class and apply this 🙂
A Quick Final Note:
Now I do feel the need to note, it is NOT wrong if you exhale backbend. So long as you have proper awareness and control of your diaphragm you’ll be fine. I like to throw active resistance in where I can and thusly make things safer and more engaging. Plus inhaling on the backbend is as you now know, more congruent with proper diaphgramatic breathing.
We in the yoga world have a tendency to drift more towards quantity of movement via focusing on how to deepen poses, rather than quality aspects of movement of engagement and awareness through restricting movement.
Quality of motion at a joint is usually far more important than quantity of motion.
You can move it. Cool, but can you control it?
Mobility without control is dangerous. Throwing in resistance and limits and thusly learning to control your movement, is quality motion. Lack of core stability falls into the quantity category because there is a lack of control resulting in more movement. Stability is simply defined as learning how to not move.
That’s my two cents, let’s wrap this bad boy up.
Less shallow chest breaths like this:
More deep belly breaths like this:
Now go forth and add some resistance into your backbending for a nice safer backbend, and unlock some of your power through proper core stability and control!
Breathe deep my friends,
- Brookbush, “Kinesiology of the Trunk” Brentbrookbush.com, Sept 2011, Accessed 6/8/16
***Other references provided by intext hyperlink