When one inhales deeply, a number of back muscles get a good stretch. However, under periods of stress, one can habituate to a pattern of quick, shallow breathing where the back muscles don’t get the play they deserve. The result can lead to stiffness and compression in the lower back.
Let’s look at complete breathing then how to modify the breath in a practice designed to lengthen the lower back in a safe and effective manner to reduce compression of the lumbar discs.
External intercostal muscles act upon the ribs, separating them to create more lung volume and less pressure, facilitating inhalation. Internal intercostal muscles depress and retract the ribs to reduce volume thereby increasing pressure, facilitating exhalation. Thoracic breathing accounts for +/- 20% of breathing capacity.
Clavicular breathing involves the lifting of the clavicle bones along with the shoulders to draw breath in the upper regions of the pear-shaped lungs. It accounts for a small percentage of breathing capacity.
Full Yogic Breathing
Full yogic breathing utilises all three processes (abdominal, thoracic and clavicular) in that order during inhalation and in reverse order during exhalation. Practicing this, one will feel many back muscles stretching as well as increased vitality. However, we can also modify the breath to lengthen the lower back and reduce disc compression as in the following practice:
Breathing Exercise for the Lower Back
Lying with knees bent and feet on the floor, (1) we apply what’s known in yoga as mula bandha which is to contract in the pelvic floor muscles (the muscles between the sex organs and anus) as if sucking the pelvic floor up within the body, then (2) we apply uddiyana bandha which is to pull in the lowest abdominal muscles to the pelvic bowl and lumbar spine as if hollowing this area. These two internal “locks” stabilise the pelvis and lumbar vertebrae.
We next apply thoracic and clavicular breathing only. There is no abdominal breathing.
Thoracic and clavicular breathing lift the ribcage up and away from the fixed pelvis thereby lengthening the muscles in-between on either side of the lumbar vertebrae.
Many people find it difficult to restrict abdominal breathing. To verify, one hand can be placed on the side of the ribs and one hand on the belly. Only the hand on the ribs should move during inhalation.
It is very easy to regulate the amount of stretch one experiences by controlling the depth or count of the breath. If one doesn't feel any lower back stretch, one has to breathe deeper or count longer to lift the ribcage even further from the pelvis. Conversely, one should not force beyond a comfortable lengthening of the spine. With not so many moving parts and by stabilising the lumbar vertebrae, this is as safe a practice as they come, and with 8-12 breaths a minute, one can consciously stretch the lower back 30-60 times in 3-5 minutes effectively sculpting the lower back in a way that provides relief from a compressed state.