When looking at breathing anatomy it helps to understand the muscles that are involved in the act of breathing and how they act in relative isolation. As an example, in Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing:
- The Respiratory Diaphragm contracts downwards to expand lung volume and cause an inhale.
- The Transverse Abdominis pulls inwards, pressing the abdominal organs upwards against the base of the diaphragm causing it to move upwards and cause an exhale.
Other muscles that can be involved in breathing include:
Obliques and Intercostals
The obliques and intercostals can be used to expand and contract the ribcage causing inhales and exhales respectively.
Intercostal muscles join adjacent ribs while the obliques joint the hip bone and the lower ribs.
1. Internal Intercostals and Obliques angle forwards and up.
2. External Obliques and Intercostals angle forwards and down.
If the spine is kept still while expanding and contracting the ribcage, then the overall movement and the resulting breath created is quite small. This often leads to the idea that the costal muscles are only accessory muscles of respiration.
However if ribcage movements are combined with spinal movements, say bending the spine backwards along with opening or expanding the chest followed by bending the spine forwards and sinking and contracting the ribcage, the resulting breath can be quite large and quite satisfying.
In this type of costal breathing:
- The spinal erectors are used with the external obliques and intercostals to help expand the ribcage while inhaling.
- A gravity driven full body slump, or some combination of the abdominal muscles (including the transverse abdominis) and the internal intercostals can be used to cause an exhale.
Spine bent backwards (inhaling)
Spine bend forwards (exhaling).
This breathing method has the added benefits of mobilizing the spine and ribcage and can also be used to help the practitioner gain more awareness and control of both spine and ribcage.
It can also be used to increase pelvic awareness, since the pelvis tilts forwards and backwards as the spine bends backwards and forwards.
This type of breath is often used in an on-all-fours position: cat pose. I prefer to teach it either while sitting or standing upright. On all fours its easy to let gravity pull your spine into a back bend. While standing this is less easy to do.
The Levator Costarum are a set of muscles that reach down to attach to the backs of the ribs from the vertebrae one or two levels above.
When activated they create an upwards pull on the rear of the ribs and this can help while inhaling. In upright positions these muscles can be used with the spine bent forwards (flexed) or with it bent backwards (extended). cause an inhale.
These muscles can be easier to activate and feel while bending the spine backwards, particularly when the focus is on activating the spinal erectors. So if trying to inhale while bending the spine backwards, you can try lifting your back ribs using these muscles, as well as expanding and opening the front of your ribcage using your intercostals.
Note that used in relative isolation the respiratory effect using just these muscles is quite small. I often use them more as an aid for thoracic extension. And so these muscles can be used to augment easy breathing. In this case, while bending the thoracic spine rearwards, pull upwards on the backs of the ribs to engage these muscles. With experience you may find that lifting the back ribs seems to create space at the back of the ribcage making it easier to bend it backwards, and thus making it possible to deepen the inhale while bending backwards.
Another breathing method that involves opening the back of the ribcage (as opposed to the front) uses a combination of the intercostals, obliques and the levator costalis. The feeling is of opening or expanding the back of the ribcage instead of the front.
In this type of breath the middle of the thoracic spine seems to push rearwards relative to the pelvis so that both the upper and lower thoracic spine bend forwards causing the rear of the thoracic spine and ribcage to open.
If you are familiar with the feeling that is created between the shoulder blades when you protract them using the serratus anterior, the feeling of breathing into the back of the ribcage is similiar.
Incidentally, you can cause "relaxed" protraction while upright by lifting and expanding your back ribs in such a way that your thoracic spine bends forwards.
Partially Activating the Respiratory Diaphragm?
The respiratory diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle situated below the lungs. It actually supports the bottom of the heart and lungs while the liver, kidneys and stomach are suspended form its underside. It attaches to the bottom edge of the ribcage as well as to the upper vertebrae of the lumbar spine. There are openings in the diaphragm for the passage of the blood vessels as well as the esophagus.
The diaphragm has fibers that attach to the kidneys as well as the 12 pair of ribs. It may be possible to isolate these fibers by anchoring the diaphragm where it connects to the front of the ribcage. These fibers can then be activated by pulling upwards the rear of the kidneys which are located at about the level of the 12th ribs.
I often like to combine the above action, lifting the backs of the kidneys, with a drawing in of the lower band of the Transverse Abdominis.
Respiratory Diaphragm and Transverse Abdominus
The Transverse Abdominis (TA) whose fibers groups can be activated in isolation. The lower belly corresponds to the triangle formed by the ASIS (the forward pointing peaks of the hip bones) and the pubic bone. The inguinal ligament is the ligament which connects ASIS to pubic bone and also creates the visible line that separates the inner thigh from the belly.
The lower fibers of the Transverse Abdominis attach to both the ASIS and the inguinal ligament,
1. Transverse Abdominis activated (belly pulled in).
2. TA relaxed.
Note for both pictures that my ribcage hasn't moved.
A simple breathing exercise is to focus on drawing in the lower belly (below the belly button) and then relax and repeat. Then do the same but focus on the upper belly. Then practice drawing the lower belly in first followed by the upper belly.
I'll often have students draw in the lower belly, then pull up on the backs of their kidneys to create an inhale.
When activated the lower portion of the Transverse Abdominis pulls in on the ASIS which tends to cause the sitting bones to move outwards effectively distorting the pelvis and causing the sacrum to nutate (nod forward) at the SI Joints.
To keep the pelvis from distorting, and to keep the SI Joint stable, the pelvic floor muscles could activate to oppose the transverse Abdominis and stabilize the bowl of the pelvis. This isn't the same as stabilizing the hip where the femur is stabilized relative to the pelvis. Instead it is an action that prevents the pelvis from distorting by stabilizing the SI Joints.
One of the ways that I like to think of the transverse Abdominis is as a tension control mechanism for the Abdominis rectus.
If only the lower belly is pulled in the transverse Abdominis actually adds some slack to the portion of the rectus that crosses the upper belly. This then makes it easier to lift and expand the front of the ribcage. Also it means that if the diaphragm contracts downwards to cause an inhale then the upper belly can expand outwards to allow this to happen.
One of the reasons that diaphragmatic breathing can be difficult to learn is that if it is done with the ribcage lifted then tension is added to the front of the belly making it difficult to push the belly forwards.
And so I'll often first teaching diaphragmatic breathing with the ribcage down (slouching) so that the belly is relaxed. It is then easier to move the belly in and out. Then once this has been learned the next exercise is to do the same with the ribcage lifted gradually more and more.
The next stage is to practice contracting the diaphragm while gradually lifting the ribcage.
In this case tension is gradually added to the wall of the belly at the same time as the diaphragm contracts downwards. Done smoothly and slowly it can feel quite meditative, particularly if you focus on keeping constant tension in the abs as the chest is lifted.
Another technique is to pull the lower belly inwards prior to contracting the diaphragm downwards. If the ribcage is kept still the upper belly will expand as the diaphragm is contracted.
A simple instruction for activating the Transverse Abdominis while doing an active belly breathing exhale is to pull the belly inwards towards the spine.
Pulling belly inwards using Transverse Abdominis.
Because the fibers of the transverse Abdominis run horizontally around the waist (like a belt), it makes it easy for these fibers to contract the belly to the point that its diameter is smaller than that of the ribcage and pelvis.
Note that the lower fibers of the TA connect to the ASIS and inguinal ligament, however the affect of their contraction can be to marginally reduce the diameter of the upper opening of the pelvis. Even if this amount is so small as to be negligeable one possible queue for teaching how to activate the lower transverse Abdominis is to pull inwards on the ASIS and/or inguinal ligaments.
Vacuuming the Abdomen As Opposed to Pulling it In
Some students may lift their ribcage to make their waist smaller. If the ribcage is pulled up away from the pelvis without allowing an inhale, then suction causes the waist to pull in.
This could be thought of as a stomach vacuum.
The action of pulling in the belly using the Transverse Abdominis looks different and feels different to vacuuming the belly.
In the second picture you notice how the ribcage has lifted. And note the hollowed out appearance of the belly due to holding the exhale as the ribcage is drawn up.
An easy way to detect when students are using the former as opposed to the latter is to watch their ribcage (and shoulders) and also to listen to their breath.
Tensing the Abdomen as Opposed to Pulling It In
Some students may be well versed in engaging their abs i.e. obliques and rectus, and that generally involves a hardening of the ab wall.
Hardening the abs as opposed to pulling the lower belly in.
Pulling inwards using the transverse Abdominis is a different feeling.
Incidentally, pulling in on the transverse Abdominis adds tension (by lengthening) to the obliques as well as the rectus Abdominis giving those muscles pre-tension which then makes it easier to activate them with less effort.
One way that students can activate or engage the abs is to pull down on the ribcage of pull the ribcage towards the pelvis.
For transverse Abdominis activation the focus is on pulling the waist inwards and rearwards towards the spine. The ribcage and pelvis can be kept still during this action.
Pulling the transverse Abdominis inwards without moving the ribcage generally causes an exhale.
You can inhale with the transverse abdominis pulled in by allowing your ribcage to expand or lift upwards.
You can then relax both actions while exhaling.
Think of the exhale when you use your transverse abdominis as a complete exhale. The exhale where you relax can be a partial exhale.
This three part breath tends to use the respiratory diaphragm for the inhale, but the intercostals and spinal erectors may also be involved.
1. Belly pulled in (complete exhale). 2. Chest lifted (inhale).
3. Relax both (partial exhale).
Starting with a two-part exhale, the steps can be as follows:
- Let your chest sink down (partial exhale)
- Pull belly your in (complete the exhale)
- Lift your chest (inhale)
While reverse breathing, the lower back expands while inhaling. This generally means the lumbar spine flattens (or straightens) and as a result the back ribs can feel like they are lifting or moving away from the back of your pelvis.
While exhaling the lumbar spine resumes it's "natural" backbend or "lordosis".
Anchoring the Front of the Ribcage
While reverse breathing the obliques (and possibly the transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis) are used to anchor the bottom rim of the ribcage, particularly the front part, so that it doesn't lift. This then anchors the portion of the respiratory diaphragm that attaches there.
As the diaphragm activates, it presses down on the abdominal organs. Because the front of the ribcage is anchored, by the abdominals, the back part lifts. Helping to cause the lumbar spine to straighten (or at least that is what it can feel like!)
What may then happen (I'm not positive on this) is that both the quadratus lumborum (which attaches to the back of the pelvis and from there to the transverse processes of the lumbar spine (l1-l4) and the twelfth rib on each side) and the rear-middle fibers of the respiratory diaphragm activate together.
Lengthening the Quadratus Lumborum
The quadratus lumborum pulls down on the 12th ribs while the respective fibers of the diaphragm pull upwards on it. During the course of the inhale when the focus is on expanding the lower back the diaphragm exerts a slightly greater force than the quadratus lumborum.
Since the front of the ribcage is anchored the added tension to the diaphragm pushes upwards on the bottom of the back of the ribcage.
Because the diaphragm is exerting more force than the quadratus lumborum, the quadratus lumborum gradually lengthens allowing the rear of the ribcage to lift upwards away from the rear of the pelvis.
It may actually be the case that the whole diaphragm is active in this action otherwise there might be "leaks" places where the diaphragm gives in. However, it may be the case that certain fibers are more active than others.
The Exhale Phase of Reverse Breathing
For the exhale, the tension in the diaphragm can be gradually reduced so that the rear of the ribcage sinks down due to gravity or due to residual tension in the quadratus lumborum. There may be a corresponding slackening at the front of the belly since the rectus and/or obliques don't have to exert so much effort to keep the front of the ribcage anchored.
This is my best guess as to what happens based on my experience and understanding of reverse breathing. I'd suggest using it as a starting reference.
On further feeling around, I'd suggest that it is the more forward fibers of the internal and external obliques that activate to keep the front of the ribcage anchored. But it may be that the transverse Abdominis also activates to pull in the belly while the external obliques activate to keep the fronts of the lower ribs activated and the internal obliques activate to negate the forward pull of the external obliques on the ribcage.
The external obliques create a forwards and/or downwards pull on the ribcage relative to the pelvis. The internal obliques can be used to create a rearwards and/or downwards pull on the ribcage. The intercostals may also be involved for further stabilizing of the ribcage.
Also note that if the transverse Abdominis are activating, particularly the lower fibers, the pelvic floor muscles may also activate to stabilize the pelvic bowl via the SI Joint.
With all these breathing variations:
- The belly can move while the ribcage and spine are kept still.
- The ribcage can move while the spine is kept still.
- The belly can move while the spine is moving.
- The ribcage can move while the spine is moving.
- The belly spine and ribcage can all move together.
There are also twisting actions, side bending or side snaking actions that can be assisted or caused by the act of breathing or during which breathing can occur.
The simplest way to explore these options is to learn to feel and control the pelvis, spine and ribcage as well as the muscles that move them: the obliques, intercostals, spinal erectors, transverse Abdominis, pelvic floor muscles and respiratory diaphragm.
Published: 2015 10 19
Updated: 2021 02 04