In November, I had the opportunity to take the second part of the DNS sport course. I reviewed DNS I in an earlier post, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to not only learn from Zuzana again, but to take a private with her. I was coming off of a self imposed 30 days of yoga, 1/2 marathon training, with some biking and weight training thrown in for good measure. An old hamstring injury flared up in the midst of all of this and I was hoping Zuzana could provide some insight into changing my mechanics. I, of course, thought I was in pretty good shape with perhaps some minor tweaking needed. During our private session, my tendency towards an inspiratory breathing pattern became quite apparent, along with my lack of lateral hip stability. Both of these things were negatively affecting my spinal position during physical activity. Over the course of the weekend, proper breathing patterns were continually emphasized during higher level positions, as well as eccentrically working the gluteus medius and integrating it with proper foot function (i.e. maintaining a short foot). A video of Zuzana explaining proper breathing technique can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7UJPm1hBEo
The fascinating thing about all of this was how much an inspiratory breathing position can affect spinal position and how much that affects pelvic position during movement. Not only is spinal position impacted by breathing, the muscles of respiration, including the serratus anterior and transverse abdominis, are also important spinal stabilizers. Blandine Calais-Germain points out in her book "Anatomy of Breathing" the serratus anterior is a powerful inspiratory muscle that does not involve the neck. Rather, it has a strong rib cage posture which serves as the base for the neck region. It is also an extremely important stabilizer of the scapula. One of the rationales behind maintaining a good breathing position is this allows proper shoulder blade positioning and therefore proper shoulder stabilization. Another important aspect of proper breathing which has strongly influenced how I move is the relationship between the diaphragm and the psoas. In a review by Buchholz (1995), Elsa Gindler's work on the function of the diaphragm is discussed, including the fact that the diaphragm properly lowers only if both the psoas major and minor and the hip joints allow free leg-movement and low back flexibility. Additionally, Page, Frank, and Lardnor (2010) point out spinal stabilization occurs if the transverse abdomens, multifidus, diaphragm, and pelvic floor co-activate for both trunk stability and force transmission. Weakness in the pelvic chain can lead to dysfunction elsewhere, including low back pain, IT band syndrome, anterior knee pain, ACL tears, and ankle sprains.
So what does this all have to do with running gait and hamstring injuries? By using primarily a chest breathing pattern, I was not properly stabilizing my pelvis. To compensate for my lack of spinal stability, I learned to accomplish hip extension by anteriorly tilting my pelvis. This, of course, shortened my psoas, turned off my poor gluteus maximus, and caused the rest of my posterior chain (calves and hamstrings) to go into overdrive leading to the appearance of the old hamstring injury. Two fascinating things have happened since I have adopted a better breathing strategy. The first is that my running stride has improved. When I catch sight of myself in windows, I am no longer arching my back. I am able to breathe into my belly as I run and my posture is much better. The combination of better breathing, improved spine position, and active release therapy on my hamstring has resulted in no more hamstring pain. The second thing that has happened is I no longer feel any lumbar spine compression when I practice yoga. I have always had too much mobility in my lumbar spine. My solution has always been to draw my belly button in to activate my transverse abdominis. It turns out drawing in the naval doesn't activate the TrA, but breathing diaphragmatically does. This has made a huge difference in how my back bends feel and I suddenly understand why the inhale always happens while moving away from the earth- to stabilize the spine. Mark Stephens wrote a really interesting blog that discusses engagement of Uddiyana Bandha which can be found here: http://www.markstephensyoga.com/blog/mula-bandha-uddiyana-bandha. He essentially says we want a relaxed belly during practice, not a contracted one. While it has been really hard for me to throw out years of "engage Uddiyana Bandha. Pull the navel towards the spine," the elimination of discomfort in the lower back and the improvement in my thoracic extension has been rather extraordinary.
One last note is much of the positioning of the spine and ribcage comes not from a pelvic tilt, but from a dropping of the ribcage. This can be difficult to understand at first and, while it is a subtle distinction, it is an important one. Dropping the ribs flattens the lumbar curve by using thoracic mobility, not lumbar mobility. This allows spinal stabilization to occur and does not compress the lumbar vertebrae. I do think this is what has made a huge difference in how my backbends feel and present themselves. It is also what I focus on while running to maintain a proper pelvic positioning. Years ago, when I read Chi Running by Danny Dryer, I couldn't figure out why he wanted people to pretend like they were hugging a big ball before they began running. In retrospect, I see it accomplishes the same spinal position in a different way.
If you are interested in more reading on this topic, "Anatomy of Breathing" does a really nice job explaining the breath in a not overly technical way. Sue Falsone's Movement Lecture on the thoracic spine also does an excellent job explaining the role of breathing in spinal stability.
Yours in health and wellness,
Calais-Germain, B., (2006). Anatomy of Breathing, Eastland Press: Seattle.
Buccholz, I., (1994). Breathing, voice, and movement therapy: applications to breathing disorders. Biofeedback Self Regulation, 19(2), pp. 141-153.
Page, P., Frank, C.C., & Lardner, R., (2010). Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance. Human Kinetics: Illinois.