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Posture: Sitting and Breathing

May 9, 2012

In the post Techniques for Meditating on the Breath we discussed the connection of mind, body, and breath. We noted that the way in which we breathe influences our mental state.  Since quality of breathing and quality of mental state are connected, we can help ourselves to  cultivate an easy, relaxed mental state by cultivating easy, relaxed breathing. We can do this by working with our posture. Posture affects breathing: good posture facilitates easy, relaxed breathing; poor posture constricts and impedes breathing.

In the post Posture: Sitting Like Vairocana we reviewed a traditional teaching of the Kagyü  lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that provides a checklist to help achieve good sitting posture. The relationship of posture and breathing gives us another way to check our posture. We can investigate whether our breath is being constricted, and if so we can change our posture to allow the breath to move more freely. It will be easier to do this if we understand the mechanics of breathing.

The ribcage and thoracic diaphragm

The muscle that is primarily responsible for breathing is commonly called the diaphragm  (those who strive for anatomical precision should refer to it as the thoracic diaphragm.)  The diaphragm  is attached to the bottom of the rib cage, as well as to the spine, and divides the torso in half horizontally. This division creates two chambers in the torso, one above the other.  The upper chamber, called the thoracic cavity, contains the heart and lungs. It is an open chamber, like a bellows; air can move in and out of the thoracic cavity through the mouth, nose, and throat.  The lower chamber, called the abdominal cavity contains the liver, stomach, intestines, and other organs. It is not open to the outside: it is more like a duffel bag then a bellows.

When the diaphragm contracts, it moves downward, lowering the floor of the thoracic cavity, and pushing the ribs up and out.  Since there is now more space (and lower pressure) in the thoracic cavity, air flows though the mouth or nose into the lungs. The diaphragm is the floor of the thoracic cavity and it is also the ceiling of the abdominal cavity, so when it moves downwards it compresses the abdominal cavity, and the abdominal wall  bulges forward.  When the diaphragm relaxes, it moves upward, allowing the ribs to move down and in, and raising the floor of the thoracic cavity. Since there is now less space (and higher pressure) in the thoracic cavity, air flows out of the lungs. Since the ceiling of the abdominal cavity is now raised, the abdominal cavity is no longer compressed, and the abdominal wall no longer bulges forward (at least it doesn’t bulge forward quite so much…)

Good posture allows the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity to expand and contract without interference. In this post, we’ll look at three different areas where many of us interfere with the easy motion of breathing.

The first area we’ll investigate is the top of the rib cage.  You  can check to see for interference with breathing in this area. Place one of your hands palm down on your chest near the  collarbone on the opposite side of your body. (If it’s your right hand, place it on the left side of your chest). See if you can feel the motion of your ribs as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and see if you can direct your breath into the area beneath your hand. Let yourself  appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Dropping the head forward and down.

Now keep your hand where it is, and let your head move forward and down like the rightmost figure in the illustration to the right. Hold that posture. Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hand?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the easy motion of breathing in your upper chest.  Let your head move up like the leftmost figure in the illustration to the right. Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hand? If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in this area.

Next, we can check the motion of the sides of the rib cage.  Place the backs of your fingers on the sides of your lower ribs, right hand on right side of your ribcage, left hand on left side of your ribcage. See if you can feel the motion of your ribs as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and direct your breath into this area. Let yourself  appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Raising the chest and pulling the shoulders back.

Now, leave your hands where they are, raise your chest, and pull your shoulders back like the man in the illustration to the right. (Many of us think that this is what good posture looks and feels like.) Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hands?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the  easy motion of breathing in this area.  Lower your chest; let it soften and let the space between your shoulder blades widen.  See how this change in posture affects the motion of your ribs. If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in this area.

The author, slumping

Next, we can check the motion of the abdomen.  Place your hands on your lower abdomen. See if you can feel the motion of your abdomen as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and direct your breath into this area. Let yourself appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Now roll yourself backwards on your pelvis so you’re sitting on the back part of your pelvis.  Let yourself slump, like the man in the illustration to the left. Can you feel a change in the motion of your abdomen under your hand?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the easy motion of breathing in your abdomen.  Let your weight shift forward so that you’re sitting more on the middle part of your pelvis. Come out of your slump.  Can you feel a change in the motion of your abdomen under your hand? If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in your abdomen.

Now let’s put all three together.  Take your posture for meditation.  You can use the seven points of the posture of Vairocana, or you can take whatever posture is appropriate for you. First bring your awareness to your upper ribs.  Allow your head to move up and balance on the top of your spine.  Enjoy the movement of your upper ribs. Next, bring your awareness to your lower ribs.  Allow your chest to soften and your shoulders to widen. Enjoy the movement of your lower ribs.  Next, bring your awareness to your abdomen.  Sit in the middle of your pelvis, neither arching forward nor slumping back. Enjoy the movement of your abdomen.  Finally, see if you can bring your awareness to both your ribcage and abdomen.  Enjoy the movement of breathing throughout your whole torso.

You can bring your awareness to these areas when you begin your meditation, and also occasionally during your meditation session, in order to be aware of any interference with your breathing.  Then you can adjust your posture in order to release this interference. Don’t try to make it perfect, just make it a little better. Then let go of this investigation and just sit.

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