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Understanding and Improving Breathing:
An Introduction

by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page

Practitioner and Trainer, Hanna Somatic Education®
Certified 1992
Certified Practitioner, Dr. Ida P. Rolf Method of Structural Integration

How do we sort out different patterns of restricted breathing and how can we correct them?

In general, breathing is supposed to be effortless. Effort and problems appear as people get conditioned into states of chronic tension triggered by long-term stress or injury to the trunk of the body.

The problem of breathing difficulty usually comes from restricted movements of breathing and usually from incomplete exhalation. The muscles involved -- the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles, and the muscles that move the ribs (including the scalenes of the neck) -- hold residual tension. As a result, people either exhale incompletely or inhale incompletely.


Misinformation about good breathing appears seemingly everywhere, often presented by yoga teachers, movement educators, physical therapists and bodyworkers. The misinformation is, "Good breathing is diaphragmatic (into the belly) breathing." In their effort to breath "well", many people forcibly drive breathing into the belly by (unconsciously) tightening the chest and pushing the belly out. (Note the conflict with the effort to create "flat abs".)

This teaching is understandable in light of the common tendency of people to "chest breathe". "Chest breathing" is shallow breathing, and people often do it when told to "take a deep breath." So, teachers instruct people to do the opposite: "belly breathing".

However, efficient breathing is more like the expansion of a balloon with the center at the diaphragm (solar plexus). It's expansion in all directions, not just expansion down into the belly. This kind of expansion gets more breathing room. However, it can't effectively be done by effort; instead, the muscular tensions that restrict breathing must be undone to free breathing, and then free expansion is easy, not a matter of self-conscious effort.

Somatic education exercises ( see bottom of page ) undo those muscular tensions -- not by stretching out tight muscles, but by removing the automatic tendency to tighten up. It's a kind of retraining process that, once accomplished, produces a lasting improvement of breathing.

Now, I'll describe breathing problems in more detail.


People who exhale incompletely may have a habitually-expanded chest; a big, rounded or hanging belly, high shoulders, and a shortened neck. The belly comes from a diaphragm that, being always partially contracted, pushes the abdominal contents down and out of their normal position; the high shoulders come from contracted scalenes lifting the upper ribs in a chronic attempt to get more air into the upper volume of the lungs. The person may also feel chronically tired or sore in the ribs.

People who inhale incompletely may have a hard, flat belly and ribs that are down and flattened in front. This flattening across the front comes from tight (1) abdominal and (2) intercostal (between ribs) muscles. These muscles, when chronically tight, (1) prevent the diaphragm from flattening and pulling air into the lungs and (2) reduce chest volume. (The dome-shaped diaphragm functions like a piston. When it contracts, the dome flattens and pulls away from the area inside the chest, sucking air in. It also lifts the ribs, something like the way a Can-Can dancer lifts her skirt.)

Tight shoulders encase the ribs and restrict breathing. Tight muscles of the shoulder girdle, attached to the rib cage, pull upon the ribs. Before the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) can function freely, the ribs must be free of the shoulder girdle.

Closer observation may reveal that in breathing, certain ribs move more than others. Areas over less mobile ribs often feel ticklish or sore. Such areas deserve special attention.


To get your client to relax their neck, especially their scalenes, can also make a big difference in breathing.


The intercostals do more than mechanically move the ribs in breathing; they also create the sensations of emotion and attitude. Their patterns of contraction create these familiar feelings.

When the intercostals contract the ribs in chronic sorrow, for example, we may find asthma. They may also chronically expand the ribs, in the posture of boistrousness and self-aggrandizement ("puffing oneself up") -- a possible compensation for feelings of inferiority or fear (which coincide with a contracted rib cage). The following sequences address both conditions.

In general, Hanna Somatic Education Practitioners do a special Breathing lesson only after they have done lessons that address the major contraction patterns of stress and injury.


    1. Free the diaphragm.
    2. Free the shoulders from the ribs.
    3. Free the ribs from each other (intercostals)
    4. Integrate rib and shoulder movements.
    5. Free the upper ribs from the neck (scalenes).


This set of maneuvers usually produces a substantial increase in breathing capacity.

STARTING POSITION: supine with knees up, feet planted near buttocks, arms back (on the table near their head)

  1. Place your hands over (and gently ride upon) the client's belly over the diaphragm.

    Spread your fingers so they define the shape of the diaphragm; place equal pressure on each finger.

  2. Client inhales, then exhales; meet, match, resist, and follow the movement in.

    Multiple repetitions will get you deeper.

  3. Client holds their breath OUT (closes epiglottis -- the air-stopping muscle of coughing).

  4. Client exerts the muscles of inhalation while keeping air out.

    INSTRUCT: "Now, you suck in your gut. . . Now, you push your belly against my fingers."

    Feel the diaphragm push out; meet and exactly match that resistance.

  5. Client gradually, slowly, and smoothly relaxes. Assist movement of the diaphragm into the shape of a deep dome.

    Have the client rock their pelvis to aid relaxation of the diaphragm.

  6. Client relaxes completely, then inhales.

    As your client inhales, lift off gradually. Coach them into filling fully.

  7. Have your client take deep breaths and watch for what doesn't move.

    Move your hands there and repeat to a satisfactory result.

  8. LOCK-IN: Have the client take and hold a breath. Have them force the ball of air back and forth between their belly and their chest.

Other, substantially more sophisticated maneuvers evolved out of this approach generate the other changes called for in the sequence listed at the start of the instructional section of this article.

Workshops in the methods of Hanna Somatic Education are periodically offered to members of the helping professions.

Lawrence Gold:

Programs that Contain Exercises that Improve Breathing

Point and click underlined items for access
Case Studies, Theory, Exercises
Transformational Exercises
Somatics: ReAwakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health
by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.
The Magic of Somatics

by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.


Calmly Energizing: Somatic Breathing Training To Reduce Stress
(audio CD) with Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.

Special Program to Free Breathing
(audio CD) with Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.

The Guidebook of Somatic Transformational Exercises
by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.

The Institute for Somatic Study and Development
Herrada Road, Santa Fe, NM 87508

+Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E. | Credentials | Published Articles | Public Speaking Occasions

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