Understanding and Improving Breathing:
An Introduction

by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page

Instructor, Hanna Somatic Education®
Certified Hanna Somatic Educator
Certified Practitioner, Dr. Ida P. Rolf Method of Structural Integration

This article discusses some the patterns of restricted breathing and presents Somatic Transformational Exercises that improve breathing.

In general, breathing is an effortless affair. Effort and problems appear as people get conditioned into states of chronic tension accompanied with a loss of sensory awareness of the feelings of breathing (sensory-motor amnesia, or SMA).

The problem of breathing difficulty usually comes from arrested (or restricted) movements of breathing and usually from incomplete exhalation. The muscles involved -- the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles, and the muscles that move the ribs (including the scalenes of the neck) -- hold residual tension. As a result, people either exhale incompletely or inhale incompletely.

People who exhale incompletely may have a habitually-expanded chest; a big, rounded or hanging belly, high shoulders, and a shortened neck. The belly comes from a diaphragm that, being always partially contracted, pushes the abdominal contents down and out of their normal position; the high shoulders come from contracted scalenes lifting the upper ribs in a chronic attempt to get more air into the upper volume of the lungs. The person may also feel chronically tired or sore in the ribs.

People who inhale incompletely may have a hard, flat belly and ribs that are down and flattened in front. This flattening across the front comes from tight (1) abdominal and (2) intercostal muscles. These muscles, when chronically tight, (1) prevent the diaphragm from flattening and pulling air into the lungs and (2) reduce chest volume. (The dome-shaped diaphragm functions like a piston. When it contracts, the dome flattens and pulls away from the area inside the chest, sucking air in. It also lifts the ribs, something like the way a Can-Can dancer lifts her skirt.)

Tight shoulders encase the ribs and restrict breathing. Tight muscles of the shoulder girdle, attached to the rib cage, pull upon the ribs. Before the intercostals can function freely, the ribs must be free of the shoulder girdle.

The general reaction/movement patterns that underlie these patterns of tension are discussed in detail in "Clinical Somatic Education -- A New Discipline in the Field of Health Care" by Thomas Hanna.

Closer observation may reveal that in breathing, certain ribs move more than others. Areas over less mobile ribs often feel ticklish or sore. Such areas deserve special attention.

To get your client to relax their neck, especially their scalenes, can also make a big difference in breathing.


The intercostals do more than mechanically move the ribs in breathing; they also create the sensations of emotion and attitude. Their patterns of contraction create these familiar feelings.

When the intercostals contract the ribs in chronic sorrow, for example, we may find asthma. They may also chronically expand the ribs, in the posture of boistrousness and self-aggrandizement ("puffing oneself up") -- a possible compensation for feelings of inferiority or fear (which coincide with a contracted rib cage). The following sequences address both conditions.

In general, Hanna Somatic Education Practitioners do a special Breathing lesson only after they have done lessons that address the major contraction patterns of stress and injury.


    1. Free the diaphragm.
    2. Free the shoulders from the ribs.
    3. Free the ribs from each other (intercostals)
    4. Integrate rib and shoulder movements.
    5. Free the upper ribs from the neck (scalenes).


This set of maneuvers usually produces a substantial increase in breathing capacity.

STARTING POSITION: supine with knees up, feet planted near buttocks, arms back (on the table near their head)

  1. Place your hands over (and gently ride upon) the client's belly over the diaphragm.

    Spread your fingers so they define the shape of the diaphragm; place equal pressure on each finger.

  2. Client inhales, then exhales; meet, match, resist, and follow the movement in.

    Multiple repetitions will get you deeper.

  3. Client holds their breath OUT (closes epiglottis -- the air-stopping muscle of coughing).

  4. Client exerts the muscles of inhalation while keeping air out.

    INSTRUCT: "Now, you suck in your gut. . . Now, you push your belly against my fingers."

    Feel the diaphragm push out; meet and exactly match that resistance.

  5. Client gradually, slowly, and smoothly relaxes. Assist movement of the diaphragm into the shape of a deep dome.

    Have the client rock their pelvis to aid relaxation of the diaphragm.

  6. Client relaxes completely, then inhales.

    As your client inhales, lift off gradually. Coach them into filling fully.

  7. Have your client take deep breaths and watch for what doesn't move.

    Move your hands there and repeat to a satisfactory result.

  8. LOCK-IN: Have the client take and hold a breath. Have them force the ball of air back and forth between their belly and their chest.

Other, substantially more sophisticated maneuvers evolved out of this approach generate the other changes called for in the sequence listed at the start of the instructional section of this article.

Workshops in the methods of Hanna Somatic Education are periodically offered to members of the helping professions.

Lawrence Gold:

Point and click underlined items for access
Case Studies, Theory, Exercises
Transformational Exercises
an experiential excerpt from The Guidebook of Somatic Transformational Exercises
Somatics: ReAwakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health
by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.
The Magic of Somatics
by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.


Special Program to Free Breathing
conducted by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.

Calmly Energizing: Somatic Breathing Training To Reduce Stress
(audio CD) with Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.

Special Program to Free Breathing
(audio CD) with Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.

The Guidebook of Somatic Transformational Exercises
by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.
Certified Hanna Somatic Educators | Personal Consultation by Telephone

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