The diaphragm is the main muscle for breathing and is located between the chest and the abdomen. The diaphragm moves down (fig.1) as you breathe in, making the space available (volume) inside the chest larger so that air can flow into the lungs. When you breathe out the diaphragm moves upward (fig.2) and reduces the chest size so that the air is pushed out of the lungs.
The topic of breathing is not one generally discussed in connection with riding. After all it's completely natural, we all do it, all of the time, surely we don't need to be told How To Breathe? The answer to this is, yes, we do need to be told as correct, deep, diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is very important in riding, It is very well known to martial artists, singers, musicians etc.
Many people do not breathe deeply using their diaphragm; they use shallow or chest breathing. To a horse this gives off a clear signal that their trusted leader is worried about something and they start to become spooky, looking for the demons they think you have already seen. Conversely, by breathing deeply and rhythmically you convey a sense of calm and of being in control, even when things might seem to be getting a little hairy!
This deep breathing is known as ‘diaphragmatic’ or ‘abdominal’ breathing .. When we breathe this way, we are using our bodies as nature intended. When we use ‘shallow’ or ‘chest’ breathing, we create stress and anxiety. This latter breathing pattern deprives the whole system of oxygen.
Habitual Diaphragmatic Breathing
When resting, the right way to breathe is with relaxed shoulders, upper chest and stomach muscles, allowing the diaphragm and lower rib muscles to carry on the automatic breathing process. When breathing in this way, the body will continually adjust the volume and breathing rate as needed to maintain the acid/base balance of the blood and other factors. Eight to twelve breaths per minute is normal breathing rate.
Habitual Thoracic (Chest) Breathing
Many, and that may mean most, people breathe in a slightly abnormal fashion. They tend to hold in their stomach, make little use of the diaphragm and breathe using the muscles of the upper chest, neck and shoulders. This style of breathing becomes automatic and the body adjusts volume and rate as it does in diaphragmatic breathing.
Thoracic breathing depends on the more rigid system of muscle action in the chest and shoulder area. This means that the lungs are given less room to expand or contract and the body must work harder. As breath volume is lowered, in order for the body to maintain it's chemical balance, breathing must be speeded up.
(With thanks to Bert A. Anderson, M.Div., Ph.D. for permission to reprint the above two paragraphs from an article entitled: Breathe In: Breathe Out.)
This type of breathing is already well known to those who practice Yoga or Martial Arts.
Concentrate primarily on the exhalation, which should be calm, long and deep. During the exhalation exert a free, relaxed, expanding downward pressure on the lower internal organs, without pulling the abdomen in.
The inhalation should be natural, automatic, spontaneous. Since the lungs are mostly empty, they quickly fill with air again.
The concentration on the exhalation creates great energy in the lower abdominal region. The body's energy centre is not in the head or upper body but in the major nerve groups located from the solar plexus to the lower abdomen. All martial arts are traditionally based on this breathing. Strong action of the body-mind takes place during the exhalation. During inhalation, a person is weakest and most vulnerable.
Air contains the energy of the universal life force and is received by our lungs and each cell in our body. It is very important to develop our breathing. Usually we breathe maybe fifteen times a minute in a shallow way, using only a small part of the lung's capacity. Deep complete Zen breathing is not just localised at the level of the thoracic cage or the diaphragm, but affects the lower abdominal organs, exerting a strong massage on the internal organs and stimulating the circulation of blood and other fluids in the body.
How To Use Abdominal Breathing
Once you have begun this rhythmic, deep breathing, you can move on to Standing Meditation. This exercise will teach you about achieving true balance; it shows you the role of the muscles and bones in maintaining balance and you will become aware your own acquired imbalances and habitual tensions.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and feet parallel (toes pointing to the front).
The head is held as though suspended from above.
Your arms are held lightly in front of you, at around navel height (but not lower), hands lightly cupped as if holding a ball. Shoulders dropped and elbows heavy.
Become aware of where you weight is in your feet. Is it evenly balanced between the two, or is there more weight down one leg? Do you weight the inside or outside of one foot more? Do you feel there is more weight in the heels or the balls of the feet? Take note of these imbalances as how you stand over your feet is how you sit on your horse!
Become aware of letting the weight sink down into the balls of your feet. If you’ve been used to standing with the weight in your heels, this may initially feel like you’re leaning forward. (THINK: If you stand with the weight in your heels, you will ride with the weight on the back of your seat bones! This, too, will need adjusting once in the saddle.)
Bend your knees just slightly (feeling the backs of the knees as soft and hollow), allowing your weight to descend fully into your feet, legs and pelvis. Think of your lower back becoming soft as it fills with air (the same way that your abdomen does). The lumbar area should be flat, not have an exaggerated arch (which is often also carried over to how we sit in the saddle). The natural curves in the spine are retained, just make sure that your butt doesn’t stick out behind you!
Many riders try to ‘tuck’ the tail bone as they think this softens or rounds the back. This is wrong, the back can only soften when the lower spine can move independently of the rest of the spine.
Now let your breath return to its natural rhythm, and come to a place of stillness in your body. Focus your gaze gently in front of you, and settle into doing nothing!
The first time you do this, you may only be able to manage a couple of minutes. That’s fine, it’s not a competition! The first minute of this meditation is the toughest to get through. You will want to move, talk, or try to stop at any cost.
‘How’ you do it is unique to you. As is ‘what’ you experience when you do it.
Sensations range from the mind wandering all over the place to feelings of physical discomfort as places where you habitually hold tension manifest themselves. Thighs held too tensely will burn; shoulders held too high may feel like they’re trying to touch your ears; if your sacral vertebrae are misaligned you’ll soon know about it! Your tummy may rumble and your knees shake. You may even experience hot and cold flushes. Hopefully, you won’t experience all of these at the same time!
These are all signs of you using unnecessary muscular tension. Try not to focus on the sensations, think of breathing into the affected parts and exhaling the badness out with the breath and allowing your body to find its own natural balance with any interference.
However, should you experience PAIN rather than discomfort. Stop immediately and seek medical advice before resuming!
The important things to remember are:
The body is relaxed, yet extended and open.
Use minimum effort.
Standing does not test how strong you are, but how intelligently you use your strength.
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Classical Dressage Notebook