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Breathe deeply

I am looking forward to an amazing trip this summer. My sister turned 40 hit a major milestone birthday, and to commemorate the event she is planning a trip with her posse to hike part of the John Muir trail for a week. We *would* do the whole trail except for the time element, and the kids-left-behind element. (Just to be clear, we take our kids backpacking every year, too, but this will be the first time either of us have been on the trail doing bigger distances since kiddos were born.) So there is a lot of planning going into the trip, not least of which is getting the bodies ready- bodies that are older than the last time they were asked to suddenly take on a big change of lifestyle for a week.

Badass Kath

Certainly, we are all walking a lot and stretching a lot and getting as fit as we can. There is another concern for some, however, that I’d like to address from a Restorative Exercise™ perspective, and that is altitude sickness.

How might this be related to skeletal alignment? Altitude sickness is related to breathing, and breathing can be affected by tight muscles that pull the skeleton out of alignment, or keep it from moving the way it should.

A quick review: The symptoms of altitude sickness~ from headache, nausea, and disorientation, all the way up to edemas and death~ all result from inadequate oxygenation. Your body needs oxygen to live, we get that oxygen by breathing it in, and it’s more difficult to access that oxygen the higher up you go. There is enough oxygen to keep a person alive even way up high, evidenced by the sherpas who don’t use oxygen tanks while assisting climbers ascending Everest. The trick is to be able to get that oxygen from the air into your body, and that requires strong and efficient respiration.  Not everyone has the genes, the physiology, or the chemistry to climb high without feeling the effects, but improving your breathing mechanics can absolutely help increase the efficiency of your oxygenation. It could certainly make the difference between a headache and none at 14,000 feet.

Because breathing is so important to life, we have more than one mechanism for getting air into our lungs. There’s a time and a place for each, and they act as backups for each other. All methods increase the space in your chest, which creates a vacuum, which pulls air in. You can do that by letting your shoulders lift, by letting your belly expand, or by expanding your ribcage. Only one of these is optimal for long-term use, and gets the biggest quantity of air in without compromising any of your other body parts.


Lifting your shoulders (scalene breathing) creates compression in your cervical spine.

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Belly breathing increases pressure on your pelvic floor and doesn’t help lift and separate your vertebrae like a breath should.

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Breathing by using the muscles in between each rib to torsionally rotate them and “expand” your ribcage is what you want. Torsional breathing.

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It sounds cool, too. Torsional.

But how do you change how you breathe? That’s a pretty involuntary habit, generally. You will need to give it some conscious thought as often as possible (meditation, anyone?), but it’s also helpful to lengthen the muscles of the shoulder girdle, and mobilize the whole thoracic area, so that your body is more physically capable of letting the ribs do their thing. Doing some stretches and exercises daily will allow your body to move the way it needs to for torsional breathing.

To be clear, it would take months of diligent work to make significant strides in oxygenation. But every little bit helps, and there are lots of other benefits of improving your breathing mechanics. Torsional breathing will help restore bone density in ribs, and when your whole torso is operating more optimally it stabilizes the spine and protects the lower back. All worthy goals, both for long-term *and* for hiking carrying heavy loads!

Now for some links: Here is one post with a breathing exercise and a good stretch to help your thoracic mobility. Here’s another post, by the same amazing physical therapist and Restorative Exercise Specialist™ Susan McLaughlin, with excellent shoulder girdle exercises that will also help open up your ribcage. Your shoulders are a big part of this equation, and here’s a good exercise from Katy herself for tight shoulders (we all have them!). Finally, my all-time-favorite shoulder exercise, demonstrated beautifully by another colleague, Jillian Nicol (the second video in the post, but they’re both very important!). Don’t forget hanging and swinging as a powerful tool, as well!

And one more to try:

Thoracic stretch

Place your hands on a table, counter, back of a chair, tree, or wall. Back your feet away until you can bend forward with your arms straight. Let your hips move backwards and feel the stretch across your shoulders. Ahhhhhh… Now take a deep breath and feel your ribcage grow and open…

Here’s to oxygenation and happy hiking!



  1. I love this Debbie. So simple and so crucial. I especially love the way that last position feels. Seems like for every mama that could be restorative in more ways than just the physical.


    • Interesting, Bern. I wonder what it is about that pose… or maybe it’s just the act of stopping to do something for yourself? If it’s something you rarely do it feels even more strongly beneficial?


  2. WOW Deb, an awesome post!!!


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