Is Holding Your Breath While You Dance Really So Bad?

Is Holding Your Breath While You Dance Really So Bad?

I was recently invited to present a workshop (of my choice!) to the dancers at York University here in Toronto. The day after I had just returned from Thailand. I was quite laggy…

I am always excited to work with the York dancers because they receive such great education on important things like injury prevention, dance kinesiology, pedagogy, and other topics that I didn’t learn about at Ryerson.

They made me a poster! So sweet.

So because I had complete freedom to choose the workshop topic, I chose something very close to my heart: Breathing. Possibly the sexiest topic. Ever.

Why? We know breathing is important. It does keep us alive. But it wasn’t until after I finished my dance BFA and started working in the strength and conditioning world that I really began to understand.

And in recent months, even, I’ve had revelations. Working to optimize how I breathe has helped me reduce many chronic pain symptoms I thought I was stuck with. Just as an example, it wasn’t until I took a few huge steps back and started to work on breath control that my knee pain stopped. CRAZY, right?

You’d think breathing would be intuitive, wouldn’t you? Well, simply being born does not make us alive, it’s that first breath that allows us to enter the land of the living. Out of necessity, this breath is a deep, efficient, belly breath. I reckon that no breath after that one first life-giving breath is the same. In fact, it might be all downhill from there.

Sorry for the ominous intro. I have this great talent for setting the mood, don’t I?

So anyway, because I know this might be new info for some of you, and a nice review for others, I want to recap some of the key points we covered in my excellently-titled workshop….

Breath, Performance and Prevention: Optimizing Breath for Dance

Fancy-sounding title, ‘innit?

I started off by asking the question, “Why should you care about breathing?”. Why is it important for you, as a dancer, to know how to do it well?

Well, as a dancer, you likely tend to do things like hold your breath, assume extreme extension postures, overuse accessory respiratory muscles, be told to suck in your belly, and then perform intense physical activity. Cleaning up breathing patterns goes a long way to balance these functional dysfunctions that dance imposes.

However, it would be foolish to think that dancers, particularly in ballet and other classical forms, are going to use deep, belly-expanding breaths while they dance, because that just doesn’t fit the esthetic. Because of this, I emphasized to the group was that it’s definitely worth it to have a few techniques up your sleeve to work on optimal breathing patterns outside of dance-life. Before class, during breaks between exercises in class, after class. Whenever.

But I must backtrack a little and talk about one of the most important structures for optimal breathing, the diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic function- What is that?

Your friend Mr. diaphragm is an important guy and he does a lot for you. More than just the primary muscle responsible for giving you life through respiration…

Your diaphragm also helps keep a bunch of other stuff working smoothly:

  • Managing information between chest and abdominal cavities, and other distal areas of the body
  •  Health and support of nerve, musculoskeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, and fascial systems
  • Lumbar, sacroiliac and cervical spine stabilization
  • Ensures proper function of mouth, swallowing, and speaking
  • Posture, static and dynamic proprioception
  • Supports organs: Heart, lungs, stomach, liver in particular
  • Ensures optimal pelvic floor function
  • Prevention of gastroesophageal reflux

Want some other fun facts about the dipahragm (yeah you do!)?

  • Diaphragm connects to your lumbar spine, influencing it’s function
  • Diaphragm has fascial connectivity to your liver, heart lungs, esophagus, kidneys psoas major, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor and other muscles and organs.
  • Diaphragm is asymmetrical, with the right hemisphere bigger and more likely to be overworked (facilitated)
  • Any change in diaphragm causes a symmetrical change in the pelvic floor, so, breathing dysfunction=pelvic floor dysfunction and visa versa.

But for the purposes of right now, let’s just say the two primary roles of the diaphragm are breathing and stability. Or in other words, DANCING BETTER WITHOUT GETTING INJURED.

How does dancing tend to mess with diaphragm function?

How does it NOT? Just kidding…

  • Sucking in the belly causing paradoxical breathing: Belly sucks in on inhalation while chest expands
  • Exaggerated extension postures and rib flare: Reduction of zone of apposition (ZOA), which I will talk more about later in this post…
  • Excessive lordosis and over-lengthened abdominals: TVA down-regulation
  • Breath holding and hyperinflation of lungs: Diaphragm facilitation, inability to exhale fully
  • Forcing turnout: Feeds extension postures and anterior pelvic tilt, increasing need to flare ribs.
  • Accessory respiratory muscle overuse: Neck, traps, pec minor, etc
  • Stress and poor recovery from classes and rehearsals

Here’s something important to think about: What happens when your diaphragm doesn’t work like it should, AND THEN the need for increased respiration arises? Like in a physiccally exhausting dance piece?

This is where things can get messy.

Maybe you are used to using your diaphragm primarily to stabilize your spine and you hold your breath to do so, rather than also using your abdominals. But then should your need to breathe increase due to strenuous dancing, your diaphragm will be used primarily for keeping you breathing rather than stabilizing your spine. In this case, you had better hope you have functional abdominals, or there won’t be much else holding you together other than bone on bone action. Mmm, gotta love that spondy feel.

Ahh the spondys. Good ol’ extension based spine injuries.

So how can you ensure that you’re both using your abdominals AND will be able to breathe enough? That’s called maintaining your zone of apposition (or ZOA). Another fancy-sounding way of saying, “Is your ribcage in an optimal position for your diaphragm to perform it’s many, many functions?”.

Well, do you dance? Then likely, you’ve lost a bit of your zone.

What is this zone (of apposition) and how can I be in it?

It’s not so much that you can be in the zone, like it’s an exclusive club or something. But honing an optimal ZOA puts you in a pretty cool club- The Super Excellent Apical Expansion Club.

By definition of the Postural Restoration Institute, the ZOA is: “The cylindrical aspect of the diaphragm that apposes the inner aspect of the lower mediastinal (chest) wall.”

Or in other words, the front part of your ribcage kind of in line with where your zyphoid process is (where your ribcage opens up in the front). If you stand with your ribs flared, with extreme lordosis, and anterior pelvic tilt, then you’ve lost your ZOA.

On the far right, you can see the extra width in the ribcage. Cause his lungs are full of air from ineficient breathing. Or as they say in Chinese Medicine, he’s full of “wind”. Hyperinflation of the lungs and poor positioning of the ribcage.

The ZOA is maintained by your transverse abdominis and your internal obliques. Dem abs!

If you are able to maintain your ZOA, that is to say, maintain abdominal activity, while you breathe, you win. High five! Your diaphragm will be in it’s best position to perform two of it’s most important functions- Delivering life-giving oxygen, and stabilizing your spine (and other things that attach to your spine, like your limbs).

You should be able to breathe deeply, into your belly, while maintaning your ZOA. If you are not, and your chest tends to expand first because you’re trying to keep your belly sucked in, this is called paradoxical breathing, and it is not a great thing to do. You probably breathe paradoxically while you dance whether you’re aware of it or not. And because your teacher tells you to…

What you should gather from those last two paragraphs is that you need to have some abdominal musculature engaged while you’re breathing to maintain your ZOA and help you breathe diaphragmatically.

Here is what it looks like to have a reduced ZOA:

Check out the rib angle, lordosis, and pelvic alignment. Indicators of probably reduction of the ZOA causing diaphragmatic dysfunction.

 How can you tell if you have diaphragm dysfunction?

Here are some signs that maybe you need to get back in the zone (of apposition) and give your diaphragm some TLC:

  • Do you dance? (kidding… sort-of)
  • You breathe paradoxically
  • Various pain symptoms: Low back, SI, neck, hip, shoulder (endless possibilities)
  • Headaches
  • Rib flare/extended posture at rest
  • Shortness of breath/asthma
  • Difficulty speaking and swallowing
  • Excessive yawning
  • Everything becomes easier with breath holding (diaphragm facilitation)
  • You have pelvic floor dysfunction
  • Digestive issues or constipation

A client of mine asked me, “Does anybody not have messed up breathing?”. I don’t know about that, but for sure, many people probably need to work on maintaining or improving their ZOA, not just dancers, and not just those who are in pain or rehabilitating injuries.

Ideally, we are all aware of our breath and rib position daily. We make it a practice to be mindful of this. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect all the time, that’s why it’s called practice. But we do need to do the work we often don’t want to do.

There are many tools you can use to improve your ZOA, diaphragm function, and breathing patterns generally, and I don’t care which path you choose. Whether you choose to do yoga, Qi Gong, find a good trainer, or see a rehabilitation specialist, the principles of good breathing remain the same.

I believe you owe it to yourself to cultivate this awareness and begin to work with someone you trust to guide you. It just might be the missing piece that helps you overcome whatever obstacles are keeping you from performing your best, and being the best person you can be.

**If you can’t breathe in a position or during a movement, you don’t own it. Own the breath, own the position, own the movement, own at life**

Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

This is a post for the lovers (or love/haters) of Martha Graham’s famous contraction, and Graham technique in general.

It would be a great understatement to say Martha Graham was a smart lady. Among other things, she recognized the importance of treating the spine with kindness (in an art form that tends to abuse the back’s “happy” range of motion), and using breath to initiate movement- A fundamental basis for her entire dance technique. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she was brilliant, and said brilliant career lasted about 70 years. Talk about career longevity. Graham has just about everyone beat.

Makes you think she must have been doing something right…

There are many ways that Martha Graham and I differ. Her dance career was successful and long career, versus my painfully short one, is just one example. But what I think is really important is that she must have innately “got” what it was to be a dancer, and not simply what it felt like to dance. It’s the difference between being and doing. And trust me, I was doing most of it wrong. I think Graham must have had some kind of instinctual sense of how dancers should use their bodies both to keep them healthy while also creating beautiful, expressive movements.

Case in point: The infamous contraction.

Consider these three common characteristics you’ll see in many dancers, particularly wannabe ballet dancers (not hatin’ or anything, just not everyBODY was made to excel at ballet):

  • Exaggerated lumbar hyperextension
  • Upflared rib cage
  • Breath holder-ism

And what do you know- These three things are the exact opposite of  the Graham contraction: lumbar flexion+ ribcage depression+ exhalation.

Those three pieces of the Graham contraction are typically what a dancer with back pain  needs: Getting out of lumbar hyper-extension, lowering the ribcage a bit, and to stop holding their breath.

And somehow Graham knew. Though perhaps she couldn’t dissect it in functional terms like I am here (me being more of a technician than an artist), she felt it, and had a highly successful career because of it. And I have mad respect. 

Unfortunately, the Graham contraction (which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the “contraction”), is super easy to do wrong. I wasn’t doing Graham contractions, I was doing a Volkmar contraction, which not only looked screwy, but also screwed a lot of stuff up and made dancing way harder than it needed to be.

The contraction is a movement pattern that involves simultaneously flexing the lumbar spine, posteriorally tilting the pelvis, and exhaling (which causes the diaphragm to relax,  fyi). Like any movement pattern, the contraction can be cheated. It will still resemble very much the contraction, but without any the above individual movements actually being done.

And yet the body finds a way. Dancers happen to be genius cheaters. Give us a movement pattern, and if we can’t do it, you can be sure we’ll find a way to cheat it. And we’ll hold our breath while we do it. And somehow make it look pretty graceful, too. That’s just the beginning of the extent of our mad skillz.

When we continuously cheat fundamental movements like the contraction daily, and for years on end, our bodies will recognize this as the “normal” pattern to work in. In this comfy, familiar pattern you can probably imagine that some muscles might become unnecessarily hyperactive (or facilitated), and some others that we should be be using, become underactive (or inhibited).

A Graham contraction, as I stated above, should involve this pattern: rounding the lower back, tucking the pelvis, dropping the ribcage, and exhaling simultaneously. The movement, initiated from the lumbo-pelvic area, causes the upper body to react naturally, and curve. As a reaction. Not as the initiation.

And here’s how you do a “Volkmar contraction”: Make the curve originate from the upper body. Round from the chest rather than lower back. Protract the shoulder blades. Do a fake, shallow exhalation (or no exhalation at all).

How to do a contraction wrong:

  • Round the upper back  instead of rounding the lower back.
  • Non-diaphragmatic exhalation.
  • Tension in the shoulders, chest, and neck rather than in the abdominals.

Based on the above compensated movement patterns, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the following muscle compensation patterns, which can become so engrained in your motor control center(your brain) that you need a team of experts to get you out of it (seriously…):

Pec minor working instead of your abdominals

Neck muscles (scalenes and friends) working, to breathe, instead of your diaphragm.

Diaphragm working instead of your psoas.

In the picture below look at how the pecs and rectus abdominis are connected fascially:

And how the diaphragm and psoas are connected:

And how the diaphragm (on the inside of the rib cage there) connects to both the psoas and the neck muscles in a kinetic chain:

If you have been doing your contractions with those common movement compensations for some time, then you might have actually lost the ability to get into the contraction position. Yet… You have some work to do, grasshopper.

Your work will involve down-regulating some muscles (via massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc), combined with the up-regulation of others (think strengthening and activation exercises). And then you must repeat that and make a promise to yourself not to go back to your old habits of movement. Don’t ever do the Volkmar contraction again. It did not look pretty. And it felt bad. So very bad.

Change is difficult process. And it’s not always enjoyable. And sometimes it even hurts (ever had pec minor or diaphragm released? owwww). But it’s worth it.

So where’s your contraction really coming from, eh?