Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares an incredibly simple restorative practice that’s designed to release the muscles around the rib cage for free, easy breathing.
There’s good reason the breath is such a central part of yoga practice. It’s not just critical to our physical survival, it’s also a profound link to our energetic, mental, and emotional states. In fact, one of the simplest ways to support robust and resilient health is to breathe well. However, deep and easeful breathing is often the first thing we lose when we are busy or experiencing stress.
This quick at-home restorative practice helps to facilitate a free and easy flow for your breath while settling and soothing your nervous system. Each of the four simple poses focuses on one of the four sides of the rib cage. The result is that the soft tissues around the ribs become more pliable and elastic, creating more freedom in the movement of each breath.
The key to this practice is subtlety. Rather than using muscular force or tension to try to deepen your breath, allow it to patiently unfold as time passes. The practice is as much about allowing your nervous system to marinate in stillness as it is about releasing the muscles around your lungs.
You’ll need a quiet, cozy space, a blanket, and a cushion.
Fold your blanket into a long rectangle, and then roll it lengthwise until the roll is about eight to ten inches in diameter. Lean on your right hip, facing the long edge of your mat with your knees bent. Place the blanket against your right side waist, parallel to the short edge of your mat; then lie over it so that it fills the space under your right side waist and low ribs, creating a gentle bend in the left side of your body. If your head rests comfortably on the floor you can leave it there; otherwise, tuck the cushion under your head or in the hollow beneath your neck.
Adjust your position until you’re comfortable enough to stay for a little while. That means your left arm may extend out in front of you, along your left side, or overhead.
Once you’ve relaxed into the side bend, bring your attention to the movement of your breath. Notice your left side ribs and waist expand with each inhale, and shrink with each exhale. Gently encourage your breath to slow and deepen, feeling or imagining a little more space opening up between each rib, and between your left ribs and hip, with each breath.
Stay here for three or four minutes, tracking the tidal movement of your breath in your left side body. Then bring your left hand to the floor in front of you and press into it to bring yourself out of the pose. Take a moment seated to feel the difference between your left and right sides.
Adjust your blanket roll until it’s parallel to the long edge of your mat. Slowly lower yourself so that the blanket supports your spine from the base of your rib cage to the back of your head, leaving your shoulder blades free to drape toward the floor. If the blanket isn't long enough to support the back of your head, place your cushion under your head to assist in releasing your neck.
Find a position that allows you to relax your low back and legs. You can stretch your legs out straight, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, or plant your feet wide apart and let your knees lean into each other. Rest your arms by your sides or out wide, with palms turned up.
Once you’ve relaxed, bring your attention to your sternum, front ribs, and abdomen. Each time you breathe in, encourage these spaces to inflate and expand. Each time you breathe out, allow them to soften and sink. You may also feel gravity gently drawing your arms and shoulders toward the floor to broaden your chest.
After three or four minutes here, turn your palms down toward the floor, draw your low ribs toward your hips, and press up to a seated position. Pause for a breath or two to explore the newfound freedom in your front body.
Roll onto your left side, adjusting your blanket so that it is once again parallel to the short end of your mat. Drape your left side body over the blanket to open your right side ribs and waist.
This time focus your attention on your breath moving your right ribs and right side waist. Using as little effort as possible, gradually amplify that movement. With each breath, find a little more space between each rib and between your lowest rib and right hip.
Stay here for three or four minutes, gently expanding your right side body with each deep breath. When you are done, bring your right hand to the floor in front of you and press yourself up off your props. Come onto all fours, sit your hips back onto your heels, and take a few breaths to explore the changes you’ve created in your front and side ribs.
Unroll your blanket partway, keeping a roll about three to four inches in diameter parallel to the short edge of your mat. Lie prone on top of it, fitting the roll in the soft tissue between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your pelvis. You can turn your blanket as needed to use the loose end as padding under either your rib cage or your pelvis, depending on which is more comfortable for you.
Again, invest a little time in making yourself comfortable. You may want to bend your elbows and stack your hands to make a pillow for your forehead, or take your arms along your sides and turn your head to one side (feel free to turn your head to the opposite side halfway through your stay).
Once you’ve settled in, refocus your attention on the movement of your breath. As you inhale, feel your belly expand and push the blanket away. As you exhale, relax your abdomen as completely as you can, allowing the roll to melt into you. As you become accustomed to that movement, notice that your back body is moving with the same rhythm. With each steady breath in, your back ribs and the space around your kidneys expand. With each slow breath out, your back body softens.
Be here for three or four minutes. Visualize your ribs mobilizing your lungs from the outside in, and your lungs mobilizing your ribs from the inside out. Then place your hands by your side ribs and press up to hands and knees.
Come to a comfortable seated position and take a final moment to feel your breath moving fully and freely in all directions.
Remember, breathing well is fundamental to good health. Fortunately deeper, easier breathing doesn’t require a huge investment of time or effort: All it takes is a little peace and quiet to calm your nervous system, and some mindful attention to the structures that surround the lungs.
No matter how busy or stressed you feel, a brief, simple restorative practice like this one may be all you need to revitalize your body, refresh your energy, and soothe your mind.