The rib “cage.” I’m no linguist, but the word “cage” doesn’t sound like anything I want to have in or around my body. Merriam-Webster Online defines a cage as: ” a box made of wire or metal bars in which people keep animals or birds.” Does that sound like a structure that will allow easy movement? Not to me. A cage sounds like something that will hold my heart and lungs in place, and will probably protect those sensitive organs from things outside of me that might damage them, but it doesn’t sound like something that will move much. In fact, it sounds downright restrictive. And if your thorax is restricted by “caged” ribs, then you may find that there are mobility issues elsewhere in your body as a result!
Like most people, if you think about it at all, you likely imagine your rib cage as a stable, static structure. Maybe you imagine it moves enough to allow you to breathe in and out, but that’s about it. And, like most people, you likely imagine that there’s not much you can do to change that. And why would you want to anyway? You do want freedom in your ribs, and I’ll tell you why. But first… you should know a little more about the structure of your ribs.
Your ribs come in pairs. Each pair of ribs is attached at (or near) the sternum, and connects to two vertebrae in your back. In effect, each pair of ribs is really like a “ring.” There are 10 such rings, and then another 2 pairs of what are called “floating ribs” at the bottom, attached only at the spine. Instead of being one large, cage-like structure, the thorax is made up of a set of rings, stacked one on top of the other, a little like a stack of plates. There are layers of muscle and connective tissue that connect these plates to one another, and that connect other parts of your body to the stack of plates: your neck & spine, your shoulder girdle, and even your hips! There are even connections to your internal organs.
When all is working well, these rings are evenly spaced and layered one over the other in a lovely, clean, tall stack. But like a stack of plates, when there is too much pressure on one side of the stack, the spaces between them get compressed. Sometimes, that compression means that a plate or two get squished and stick out of the stack on one side. Or maybe they get twisted around. Maybe two or three get stuck together and start moving as a unit instead of working as discrete parts with their own function and connections.
So what happens in your body when those rib rings, or “plates” start to glom together? Because of their many intricate connections, other body parts get “glommed” together with them. Maybe it means a strange rotation in your spine. Or perhaps it means a chronically imbalanced shoulder girdle that creates pain and weakness in your shoulder. Maybe it’s a stiff, sore neck that you simply cannot relieve through massage or corrective neck exercises. Perhaps it’s a little more internal, and you feel your heart race from time to time, or have a hard time taking a good, deep, free breath. The thing is, you probably won’t notice the rib stuff. But eventually, you will notice its effects on your system overall.
On your own, it may be difficult to determine whether your rings are free and happy. If you’re concerned that they may be causing you some trouble, a good movement professional may be able to help you sort things out. In the meantime though, try this little visualization. If it feels good – do it some more. You may find that other things start to get easier.
Sit or stand comfortably, feet on the floor, spine long and crown of the head reaching for the sky. Un-tuck your tailbone, allowing a little space between the sitz bones and the tail. Take some easy breaths. Feel what’s going on for you now. What moves as you breathe: your sternum, your collarbones, your ribs, your shoulders, your neck? Does it feel easy to breathe? Can you keep legs and butt relaxed? Does your belly pop forward?
Now imagine those rings as a stack of plates. Trace the sides of the ribs with your fingertips if you want. Feel the hard bony parts, and the softer spaces in between them. Are the spaces relatively even? Can you feel places where the rings are closer together than others? Do you experience any tenderness as you run your fingers over the bones and muscles? Notice your observations.
Allow your breath to move into the spaces between the ribs. Experience it in 3-D. As the individual rings move, the whole of your thorax moves. Imagine the rings floating on your lungs like driftwood on water. They are along for the ride instead of controlling the action. Imagine the space between those rings expanding, slowly and gently. There is no room in this for being “pushy” or demanding of your body – simply allow it to happen. Do you feel a free, even motion in the thorax as you breathe? Do you notice any twists or shifts as you inhale or exhale? Are other parts of your body involved in your breath?
It may take a few minutes to really tune in to your sensations here. If you do notice stickiness or tightness or twisty-ness in your body – imagine using the breath to create space where there is none. Allow the air in your body to begin to even out the positions. And if you can’t feel it yet, just create the pictures. Because imagery is the first step to getting there. By simply creating a different picture, and sustaining it in motion, you’ll feel other parts of your body respond. You’ll probably feel the effects of creating that picture before you’ll confidently feel the space and support you create for your rib rings. You may find your breath deepen, or get easier. You may feel your whole shoulder girdle relax. You may find it’s easier to feel your weight on both legs in a standing position. What you experience will depend on what structures the rings are putting pressure on. When you release the pressure, your whole body will feel the difference.
Forget the idea of your ribs as a cage. It doesn’t serve you well. Play with your rib rings and observe how your body responds. It’s simple to do. Simple to try. Why not give it a shot and see what happens in YOUR body? You never know… you just might like it. And your structure will thank you for it.
(If you’d like to learn more, check out this article “The Thoracic Ring Approach,” by Dr. Linda-Joy Lee, the creator and developer of this innovative, unique perspective on the function of thoracic spine and rib cage (the thorax) and the role that the thorax plays in optimal function of the whole body and optimal health of the whole person.
Dr. Linda-Joy Lee’s groundbreaking work is revolutionizing the way people think about and work with thorax. I have had the great pleasure of taking a course with her, and my own body has reaped the benefits of working with her accomplished team at Synergy Physio! This work has had a huge influence on my own integrated systems approach to training the body in motion!)