The way we breathe dramatically influences our total body function and health. Breathing improperly will not only cause stiffness in the upper back, shoulders, hips, and neck, it can also decrease energy levels. The most common manifestation I see of poor breathing is neck pain and headaches.
Many breathe with the muscles in the upper part of the chest and neck (instead of the diaphragm). This is especially true for those of us who experience increased levels of stress, as emotions will change how we breathe as well. If there is stiffening in the rib cage, there will also be a tightening in the neck and hips. Where the ribs go, the hips go — and vice versa. So now we have stiff ribs, hips, and a neck that is poorly set up to absorb the force of our heavy heads moving around.
Try this. Lay on your back with your feet resting on a stool or chair (knees and hips should be approximately at 90 degrees). Place your hands on either side of your rib cage. Take a deep breath in and out. You should feel your lower rib cage expand to the sides (into your hands), and if not you’re probably breathing into your upper chest and neck. Try again and do the same thing but move one hand to the tissue just above your collarbone. If you feel that tissue expand with your inhale you’re definitely doing it wrong. Take your hands back to your side rib cage. Now apply light pressure on either side (press in with hands) and take an inhale, focusing on pushing your hands out. Repeat this at least 10 deep breaths, also making sure to exhale entirely each time.
Challenge: Spend three to five minutes, a few times a day, practising/being aware of this style of breathing, and see if you can note any differences in your overall quality of life down to the details like sleep and mood quality, tension, and blood pressure.
Practising that movement multiple times a day is the first step in getting your breathing back on track. You should notice a marked difference in how your neck and upper back feel, maybe even improved energy levels and mood. Make sure when you do take time to practise this you don’t have other distractions. It takes a lot of focus to get this right!