"Whether we're exercising or working at the computer, how we hold our bodies can have a strong effect on our capacity to breathe well," says Stacy Dockins, author of Embodied Posture. "A slumped—or forward rounded posture—diminishes the space in which breath happens by decreasing the chest wall diameter, keeping the lungs from full inflation and free movement. Not only do the lungs have decreased capacity, the functionality of the diaphragm—the main muscle of respiration—is also diminished. With good posture, the natural, neutral shape of the spine and ribs return, freeing up the respiration space, while encouraging full function of the diaphragm and corresponding muscles of respiration."
Poor posture limits the diaphragm's ability to do its job, which could be one of the prime reasons you aren't feeling as good as you could be every day. Something as simple as not breathing your fullest breaths could lead to a ripple effect of issues that affect your health and well-being.
"Shallow breathing is highly correlated with the body's fight or flight response and the increased production of the stress hormone, cortisol," Dockins explains. "When the body is burdened with excess cortisol, it can cause a cascade of negative effects on other systems of the body, like blood sugar dysregulation, hormone imbalance, and musculoskeletal pain. Longer, slower, deeper breaths are strongly correlated with parasympathetic response, decreasing stress."
It's never too late to start improving your posture to reverse some of the problems slouching has caused. Aside from giving your respiratory system the space it needs for full, deep breaths, Dockins says it can also play a role in your mental health. The mind-body connection is powerful stuff.
"Deep breathing will support your body's ability for autonomic balance, diminishing the stress cascade. Improving your posture can also have a direct effect on your mental state, invoking feelings of contentment and positivity," she says. "I see students every day leaving my yoga classes feeling happier and lighter. We can certainly give credit to the endorphins, but I truly believe that opening your chest, lengthening your spine, and breathing deeply sends an embodied message of wellness to the entire physiology."
When you're ready to improve your posture for better breathing and beyond, there's one simple yoga pose you can start with.
This exercise for posture improves your breathing, too.
Because of how much a bad posture affects your well-being, Dockins includes locust pose in almost every yoga class she teaches. "The neuromuscular patterns correlated with poor posture include weakened upper back muscles and glutes, combined with tightened anterior deltoids, pectorals, and hip flexors. Locust pose counters all these muscular imbalances," she says.
How to practice locust pose, or salabhasana:
1. Lie on your belly face down with feet near hip-width distance or wider.
2. Hold your arms beside your body in airplane wing position. Keep your palms face down.
3. Lift your arms and legs off the floor. Reach through fingers and toes.
4. Draw your scapula slightly toward each other, then down your back.
5. Use your glutes to lift your legs higher.
6. Keep your neck long and neutral.
7. Hold for five deep breaths then repeat for a total of three rounds.
For an advanced version: Reach your arms forward and imagine you have big snorkel fins on your feet. Kick and swim for 30-second intervals.
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