Breathing in Clinical Somatics exercises
Many students ask me how to breathe correctly when practicing Clinical Somatics exercises. Your breathing pattern is more important in some exercises than others, depending on whether or not the exercise includes extension or flexion of the spine.
In this post I’ll describe why diaphragmatic breathing is important, the general principle of how to breathe when practicing Clinical Somatics exercises, and some step-by-step examples of how to breathe in specific exercises. The bottom line is that you should breathe as much as you need to and never hold your breath; but, learning how to breathe in the following ways will allow you to get the most benefit from your Clinical Somatics practice.
What is diaphragmatic breathing, and why is it so important?
As you can see in the diagrams below, the diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle located just below our lungs. In diaphragmatic breathing, we contract our diaphragm, pushing its center downward and inverting its umbrella shape as we inhale. This action draws air into our lungs and makes our belly expand. Then as we release our diaphragm, the muscle relaxes upward and expels the air out of our lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing occurs naturally in all mammals when we are in a state of relaxation; this type of breathing is known as eupnea and requires no conscious effort.
When we become stressed for any reason, however, we instinctively shift to shallow breathing. This type of breathing consists of drawing air into the lungs using the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between each rib) instead of the diaphragm. As a result, in shallow breathing the chest expands instead of the belly.
The most common physiological issue associated with shallow breathing is a heightened level of stress due to constant activation of the stress response. Stress causes us to breathe shallowly, and if we experience stress on a regular basis, our shallow breathing becomes habitual. We continue to breathe shallowly whether or not we’re experiencing stress, and the shallow breathing actually activates our stress response.
Shallow breathing is also associated with anxiety disorders, panic attacks, hyperventilation, shock, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body known as hypercapnia.
Another reason people tend toward shallow breathing is the desire to not stick their belly out and appear overweight. The idea that we should suck in our stomach is so ingrained that it affects our breathing without us being aware of it. Many people have unnecessary tension in their abdominal muscles as a result of holding their stomach in so often, and this tension prevents them from taking full breaths.
The good news is that you can train yourself to breathe diaphragmatically pretty much all of the time. It just takes practice, like any muscular skill. The more often you practice diaphragmatic breathing, the more habitual it will become—and the more relaxed you’ll feel.
Close your eyes. Visualize your diaphragm inside you, just below your lungs. Completely relax. As you inhale through your nose, visualize the air going down to your lungs, and your diaphragm pushing downward. Be aware of your belly expanding at the same time. Then slowly let your diaphragm relax upward, as you slowly exhale.
Now try this while slowly counting to five as you inhale, then slowly counting to five as you exhale.
Now, slowly count to ten as you inhale, then slowly count to ten as you exhale.
The more often you practice this exercise, the more aware you will become of how you’re breathing. Soon, you’ll notice when you’re breathing shallowly because it will feel wrong, and you’ll instinctively slow yourself down and return to diaphragmatic breathing.
An added benefit of diaphragmatic breathing is that it pandiculates your diaphragm. By consciously inhaling and then very slowly exhaling, you’re pandiculating the muscle just like you do with all your other muscles in Clinical Somatics exercises. So by practicing diaphragmatic breathing on a regular basis, you’ll release any chronic tension in your diaphragm, and your breathing will become easier and more relaxed.
Arching and flattening: Natural extensions of inhaling and exhaling
So, the first guideline to breathing in Clinical Somatics exercises is that you should breathe diaphragmatically. The exercises will be most effective if you are completely relaxed and not holding your breath.
The second guideline is that you should inhale as you do any sort of arch or extension of your spine, and exhale as you flatten, curl, or do any sort of flexion of your spine.
Here’s why: Extension and flexion of the spine are natural extensions of the movements of inhaling and exhaling.
When you inhale, your diaphragm moves downward and your belly expands. If you are relaxed, you should feel a gentle, natural extension or arching of your spine as you inhale. When you want to take a really deep inhale, you may actively arch your back to create more space in your chest and abdomen.
When you exhale, your lungs empty and your belly returns to normal. If you want to expel the air from your lungs more completely or forcefully, you can contract your internal intercostals and abdominals to reduce the space in your chest and abdomen.
If you try to do the opposite—inhale while doing a flatten or curl, or exhale while doing an arch—you’ll find that it feels difficult and unnatural.
Breathing in specific Clinical Somatics exercises
Let’s start with the Arch & Flatten:
- 1. The Arch: Inhale into your belly as you roll your pelvis forward, arching your lower back.
- 2. Exhale and breathe as you need to as you very slowly release the muscles in your lower back to return to neutral. If you’re moving very slowly, you may need to take several breaths as you return to neutral. Please note: This is not the Flatten; this part is simply the release out of the Arch.
- 3. While you’re resting in neutral, inhale down into your belly.
- 4. The Flatten: Exhale as you flatten your lower back down into the floor.
- 5. Breathe as you need to as you release out of the Flatten. If you are moving very slowly, you may need to take several breaths as you release back to neutral.
You can follow this pattern for the Arch & Curl, One-Sided Arch & Curl, Diagonal Arch & Curl, Flowering Arch & Curl, and Diagonal Curl.
The same pattern applies to the Side Curl:
- 1. Inhale while you’re resting in neutral.
- 2. The Curl: Exhale as you curl up to the side.
- 3. Breathe as you need to while you release back down to neutral. If you’re moving slowly, you may need to take several breaths as you release.
In the Back Lift, I instruct that you should inhale during the back extensions: the lifting of the head, the lifting of the head and arm, and the full movement. You can also inhale as you lift your leg. Apart from those inhales, simply breathe as you need to. You will likely need to take several breaths as you release out of the back extensions.