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Your Ribcage Shape Tells Me if you can Relax


Your breathing strategy is a HABITUAL pattern affected by your genetics, prolonged postures, and movement strategies. Your ribcage shape tells me how effectively you use your diaphragm and abdominals--key core muscles--and also reveals clues to seemingly unrelated issues: back pain, knee pain, pelvic floor issues and even neck and shoulder pain!

But your ribcage shape is perhaps most vitally relevant to how well you are able to relax. To understand this, we need to know a little more about the anatomy of breathing and how it relates to your nervous system (the controller of whether or not you can relax).

The diaphragm is the muscular floor to your ribcage responsible for 60-80% of breathing effort. It also separates your heart and lungs from your digestive system. When the diaphragm moves well (down for the inhale and up for the exhale), it stimulates and massages the heart and the digestive tract.

However, with prolonged poor posture, the diaphragm is not “stacked” over the pelvic diaphragm. Their healthy up and down movement is inhibited.

The diaphragm gets STUCK.

So, the Ribcage shape changes.

Since the body still needs to breathe, it either compresses the ribcage into a squashed WIDE shape or elongates and NARROWS itself in order to make respiration possible.


For both shapes, the Diaphragm is too low, unable to ascend fully.

What does it matter? A proper breath cycle regulates the body’s nervous systems. The diaphragm sits below the heart and above the digestive system, mediating these systems. It needs to move to do its job.


The lowered diaphragm is stuck in the inhale position, which is when our nervous system switches on the sympathetic state to optimize blood flow to the lungs. The chart below shows how the the diaphragm mediates the actions of the autonomic (fight-flight/rest-digest) and enteric (gut) nervous systems during each breath cycle.

This chart helps show why exhales can be relaxing. Too wide or too narrow ribcage shapes have impaired exhales and a diaphragm stuck in an inhale (flight or flight) position. Knowing your ribcage shape helps you to correct your unique breathing imbalance. It empowers you to regulate yourself.


If you know your ribcage shape, you can consciously change it. This is why breathing has been the focus of wellness systems for millennia. It is our way "in" to affecting the nervous system.

How to get your diaphragm moving in order to help your body relax:

  1. "Stack" your diaphragms (good posture)

  2. Exhale according to your ribcage shape (see below)

  3. Inhale according to your ribcage shape (see below)

NARROWS have short and overactive abdominals. (note: abdominals are the exhaling muscles). They can exhale forcefully and for longer periods, but often have weaker shorter inhales. The ribs are already far apart, so they use their neck and chest muscles to pull in air. These folks often REVERSE BREATHE, and can feel more anxious. They are good at Uddiyana bandha/kriya and love hollowing the belly. They love lengthening their exhales because it is easy for them.

WIDES have longer weaker abdominals. Their ribs spaced closer together. Therefore, it is harder to open the ribs and lift the chest for a proper inhale. The body widens the lowest (most flexible) ribs to inhale; this structural change makes it hard to narrow the ribcage for a proper exhale. Wides love belly breathing because the ribcage does not need to change its shape for that. The wide exhale is often short and soft.


Beyond Belly Breathing

Belly breathing is an EXCELLENT first step to get people out of their reverse breathing habits. But we need to go beyond that.

The way to know if the diaphragm is moving properly is if the sides of the ribcage are:

Widening with the INHALE and Narrowing with the EXHALE

Breathing is working well if we see two important actions:

BUCKET HANDLES: The mid-low ribs should widen OUT TO THE SIDES, like the handles of a 5-gallon bucket lifting from the side of the bucket upwards.

PUMP HANDLE: The sternum and upper ribs elevate with inhales. (This action is notable absent for wides).

How to tell if you are a wide or narrow:



Your ISA measures >90°

Deeper low back arch

Forward tilted pelvis w/ fuller butt


Falling arches

Your ISA measures <90°

Flatter low back

Tucked pelvis with flatter butt


Supinated arches

Note: one half could be wide, and the other narrow! Also, these aren’t strict categories; there can be overlap.


WIDES need to work on longer, pursed lipped, more forceful exhales that actually narrow their too wide lower ribs. They need to work on NARROWING. To inhale, they need to limit belly breathing and work the pump handle action. (Limit belly expansion by keeping the abs firm on inhale. Sounds like heresy, but this is a game changer!)

NARROWS could benefit from reducing their forceful exhale habits and opt for softer, open mouth exhales (like fogging up your glasses) that do not narrow the ribcage any further. On inhale, they can emphasize WIDENING the ribcage to build a longer, stronger inhale.

If you're interested in learning if you are a WIDE or NARROW and how to correct it, book a private or come to a group class.





Thank you to Zac Cupples, DPT for his thorough discussions and videos on Wide and Narrow ISA.

©The Yoga Map LLC 2024. May share, but please attribute.

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