Opening the Chest and Ribcage
For 360° Breathing
Why is This Important?
The third principle of BreathYoga is to "Open the Chest and Ribcage". The goal here is to both create a balanced alignment for the lungs to easily expand downwards, and also to be able to breathe both into the chest and the back, where most of our lungs are. Along with the actions in the Side Line we can cultivate a '360 degree' breath.
What is the Back and Front Line?
We are talking about two opposing 'lines' of connected chains of muscle and fascia. They are like pulleys which counterbalance each other to help us maintain good alignment and through that, better breathing.
The Front Line starts at the tops of your feet and goes up the shins, quadriceps, abdomen, chest and neck. The second one starts on the sole of your feet and moves up the back plane through your calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back muscles, smaller muscles in the ribcage, through your neck and over your skull to your forehead. That one is called "the Back Line". When these two are balanced with each other, our alignment is better and our breathing is fuller.
Think of the person who slumps forward, sticking their chins forward, with shallow breathing. That is a person with a tight Front Line and a weak Back Line. A remedy for this situation is to strengthen the back line and lengthen the front. That's basically what you do in a backbend.
But because the chest is fascially connected to the abdomen, and the abdomen to the pelvis and so on, all the way to the feet, when you want to "Open the Chest and Ribcage" it's very helpful to know the whole line and work on each part. The effect can be liberating.
This is largely based but not 100% faithful to, the work of Tom Meyer's Anatomy Trains system. In it he describes how the whole body is connected by virtue of the fact that muscles have connections with each other through a medium of tissue called fascia. These networks form specific patterns which support posture, movement and energy flow and appear to follow the meridians as presented in Chinese accupunture. The reason behind the adaptation is as it relates experientially to yoga and breathing.
The Back Line
If you were laying on your belly and lifted your head to come up to standing, you would be using muscles along the back line. It's the first line we learn to use as babies and continues to be the hardest working line of all. It goes in two segments, first from the sole of the foot to the knee which you experienced in the above exercise (if you haven't done it yet, do!). The second segment goes from the knee all the way to the forehead. The back line is stretched when we do forward bends and strengthened when we do backward bends. If this line is tight, one has tight hamstrings, possibly an excessive curve in the lower back (lumbar lordosis), a hyper extended neck and difficulty breathing into the back.
Verify it for yourself
An easy way to verify the fascial connections is to notice the one that links from the soles of your feet to your hamstrings. This one is part of the back line connection which we will explore in a moment.
Do a forward bend and feel your hamstrings. Tight?
Now give the sole of your left foot a nice massage, particularly digging your knuckles in the middle of the sole of your foot
Do another forward bend. Did it get easier on the left side?
There are other ones which are not hard to feel, like how the psoas connect to the diaphragm which is part of the Core Line.
Back Line Anatomy
It begins in the sole of the foot as the Plantar Fascia and connects to the Achilles Tendon and then into the Hamstrings and Glutes. It flows into the Spinal Erectors (small muscles of the lower back which create the back arch and help you to lift your chest) and the two sets of Levator Costarum, which are on either side of your spine, woven between the ribs, underneath the spinal erectors. The back line then continues all the way over the head, connecting to the fascia on your forehead. Which is why forward bends are easier when you lift your chin.
The Levator Costarum (pictured) help you to lift the back ribs and open up some interesting possibilities for expanding your breath into your back which we will explore later.
The Front Line
When you see someone who is slumping forward with their chin poking out (staring at their phones usually) that is the front line which is contracted, pulling the chest down, and of course, compromising the breathing.
Because this posture is so common, it is usual that the front line which is more likely tighter. Ideally this helps us lift up and support whatever is forward of the center line of gravity: knees, hips, ribcage, and face. A tight front line usually means slumping and finding backward bending really hard to do.
Front Line Anatomy
There are two front lines, both starting at the tops of the toes at the Tibialis Anterior which plays a central role in creating the arch of the foot. The Tibialis Anterior is involved in the shins and then then flows up into the Quadriceps particularly one of the four quadriceps: Rectus Femoris which is at the center of the thigh. This one quadricep runs through the knee and attaches at the head of the shin. It is this rectus femoris which gives continuity between the legs and the hip bones and from there to the Abdominal Muscles and up to the chest, the Sternocleidomastoids (also part of the Side Line) and then finishing at the scalp. The front line is stretched when we do backward bends and strengthened when we do forward bending.
Poses to Lengthen the Back Line
(so you can breathe into the back)
Massage soles of feet
Stretch calf muscles and hamstrings- uttanasana, downward dog, trikonasana
Cat pose/child's pose
Poses to Lengthen the Front Line
(so you can breathe into the chest)
Point toes/ankle extension
Upward dog while pushing tops of toes into mat
Add "core" work for transverse abdominus: when lower belly is pulled in by the transverse abdominus, slack is created in rectus abdominus that crosses the upper belly. This makes it easier to lift and expand the front of the ribcage
When you have finished practicing poses to lengthen the back line, practice breathing into your back, particularly between the shoulder blades. Similarly open the front line and then breathe into the chest. Then practice breathing so you fill your inhalation into both the front and back at the same time.
Costal breathing/Lion's Breath
Accentuate the curve in your lower back (spinal extensors) while lifting and opening the chest. Breathe in.
Pull your sternum back relative to pelvis. Lift back ribs using the Levator Costarum while lengtheing sides of your waist. Your back will feel like it is expanding. Bow your neck forwards and exhale.
Repeat but change the breathing. Exhale while extending the lower back and inhale while expanding and breathing into the back.
Fix Diaphragm at Lower Back Ribs and Do Deep Breathing
To give your diaphragm a stable foundation to expand from and thereby allow greater movement you can try to stabilize where it attaches at the 12th rib. Try to anchor your diaphragm at the back of the ribcage by creating a downward pull on the back of the bottom of the ribcage. You don't actually lower your ribs however, which is what makes this a bit tricky to demonstrate.
There is a channel of energy that connects the front body to the back body and the back body to the front body in a loop. This is called the 'Arohan' and 'Awarohan' psychic pathways. The descending Awarohan channel is the same as the Sushumna Nadi as described in the Core Line.
The ascending Arohan channel begins at the root chakra and meets the at the throat chakra. Some practioners use a loop that moves inside the head from the throat chakra to the occiput (bindu chakra), from the occiput to the pineal gland (ajna chakra) and then back to the throat chakra before descending.
Others turn this into an eliptical, going up the body, over the head and down the back. Either way, this can be a powerful and absorbing meditation practice, particularly after opening the back and front line using yoga posture.