The rib cage is an all important frame that serves more than just protecting the visceral organs from damage and providing a cavity for the lungs and diaphragm. The ribs can be your secret to 'unlocking' the balance of posture that so many people search for.
I talk a lot with my clients about the spine and the fact that its like a big 'meccano set', balancing itself with 26 'floors' or 'pieces' that contribute to three main curves. The concave lumbar curve, convex thoracic curve and the concave cervical. All these ‘floors’ are balanced on the foundations of the pelvis. Which being a former dancer has always been my primary focus for stability and efficient posture. But the ribcage plays a huge role in balancing out this curvature and influencing its alignment as well as that of the cervical spine (neck).
As a very 'forward orientated' society, we are constantly flexed forward at the hips, and reaching forward for work with computers and desks forming the majority of our work labours. Looking at the body from the side, if the ribs are falling forward, this generally throws the body forwards and the upper back rounds as a result.
The ribs are meant to 'float' in the front. As a dancer, we were encouraged very much to lift from the sternum, the bottom bony section of the breast plate. Its not about lifting the chest as such but more about feeling a butchers hook underneath the bottom articulation of where the ribs lie and feeling that pull upwards towards the front of the room. Bit of a gruesome image but just think about it now and feel what happens to your back and chest!!
There are tiny muscles that link the ribs to each other, the intercostals. These oblique muscles assist with forced respiration - ie breathing out heavily such as when you are running stairs or throwing a basketball. Shortening of these tiny muscles can lock the ribs 'forward' in a downward direction. Kind of like venetian blinds that are closed. Ideally you want the ribs to be 'open' (if they were venetian blinds). LET THAT LIGHT IN as the gospel preachers say. This helps to balance the upper body and perhaps more importantly, makes breathing easier and balances the upper cervical spine (neck) without having to think about just 'pulling the shoulders back. It also assists very much with breathing and the ability to maintain a relaxed and efficient breath.
It is also a case with many of my clients, particularly female clients who try to diligently maintain their posture whilst seated at the desk. Sometimes I see an actual 'over-correction' of the spinal alignment where the back is flattened and almost too straight, usually by flattening the lumbar spine and consequently the thoracic spine in the mid back becomes flattened and stiff. This is an unnatural posture and I don't encourage it. The spine should have natural curves to it, with a sweeping motion from one curve to another, like a well designed formula one track! Something that would make motorcycle riders swoon!
An open rib cage is vitally important if you are going to do anything overhead. Say a tennis serve, or any weight bearing in the overhead position. If the ribs are locked forward this has a direct influence on how much your shoulders are able to extend and open. I often talk about the Olympic Lifter who never has the weight in front of his head. It is always behind. This alignment requires flexibility in the shoulders but also in the rib cage. If those venetians are shut, the ability for the shoulders to open and extend is directly compromised.
Anyone who does yoga will tell you how good it feels to do an upper release. So many postures contain this motion of extending the spine, looking upwards and opening the upper body. Dancers do it first thing in the morning, and that great 'crack' you get when you do your first upper back release, is heaven! We need to do it more. We need to open our ribs and get our backs extending, especially if we are to avoid the desk bound posture that so many people suffer from.
This is so important for the neck alignment. If the thoracic spine and rib cage is flattened, this consequently throws the shoulders slightly forward and the head inclines downward. To lift the head, the posterior neck muscles must engage to bring the face upwards. This is muscular tension and it is very rare to see someone with posterior neck pain who doesn't have some articulation issue further down the spine. Often releasing through the thoracic area results in a relief of the neck tension.
Getting into extension is easy. I give my clients the exercise of arching over a swiss ball. But you can do this over a couch, a bed, even a bench. I miss the desk at Clarence St (our former residence) as it had this lovely rolled edge to it and I could arch over it and slip down it like a slippery dip, giving myself a great release and adjustment at the same time! This is something I encourage anyone who sits at a desk to do regularly. Who cares if your work colleagues look oddly at you as you do some surreptitious yoga in the photocopying room? Its a great way to ensure you don't end up with a dowagers hump.
So give your ribs a crack. Get those venetian blinds open and feel the cage 'floating' in front of you instead of having it weight you down. You really will notice the difference. You can get into our lunchtime yoga classes where Margaret can get your ribs open like peeling a can of sardines. Its worth it!