Functional Core and More! Part 1 Breathe
by Susan Haines, MFA, NKT, FMT, IASTM
The term “core” has been tossed about for years, selling magazine covers, prompting mirror selfies, and inspiring countless crunches and planks. My students tell me repeatedly that they know they should be engaging their core while they are dancing. But what does this really mean? The cues we hear about engaging the core are as plentiful as Tik Tok videos. Things like: pull your navel to your spine, feel like you’re zipping up a tight pair of jeans, pretend you’re blowing out a birthday candle, gather a imaginary TheraBand around your trunk, pull the core together like a corset. I could go on and on, but we’ve heard all of these before. And despite our extreme focus on working the core—I find most dancers do not have a good sense of how to use their core in motion. As one student put it, “So, am I just supposed to stop in the middle of the phrase and suck it in? Is this using my core correctly? I’m trying really hard but now I can’t breathe!”
Most dancers are spending a lot of time on exercises for the core and then hope that the aftereffects will magically insert themselves into their dancing. However, this isn’t exactly how it works.
Our core does a lot for us! It stabilizes our spine, generates force for movement, and protects our organs, and a whole lot more! We do need to ensure that we can generate power from the trunk, and we need to ensure that our stabilizing muscles can handle the demands of dancing. We also need to have proper neurological reaction timing for the trunk for even simple movements like walking. All this requires a bit more finesse than crunches and planks. We need to start with building awareness of the intrinsic core with appropriate synchronization of the thoracic and pelvic floor diaphragms.
Wait. I know what you’re thinking. You just gave a big eye roll there, didn’t you? You started reading this hoping it would teach you a killer ab routine and now we’re talking about BREATHING? I feel you. I like to MOVE. I like to DANCE. I do not like to slow down and focus on breath. In fact, as a young dancer, the reason I started taking Pilates was that it let me move a lot while pretending I was working on my breath!
Hang with me a little longer on this—we can’t have the killer ab routine without finding our breath. OK, that’s not exactly true! We CAN have the killer ab routine, but its going to come with a side of dysfunctional breath patterns that won’t sustain us for the long run. Joseph Schwartz, creator of Dynamic Neuromuscular Assessment states, “If the breathing apparatus is out of sync--without this we can’t properly build the other kinetic chains for bigger movement.” Most dancers (and humans) need to take a closer look at their breathing to ensure they have appropriate function of thoracic and pelvic floor diaphragms. This offers dancers the ability to protect the spine and generate force through intra-abdominal pressure starting with the intrinsic core.
Master anatomist Dr. Kathy Dooley says, “Intra-abdominal pressure is like a dial, one must learn to use the dial to properly activate what is needed to protect the spine – yet permit proper movement of the trunk and limbs….But if you don’t understand the mechanics of achieving proper intra-abdominal pressure then you mobilize on a wobbly platform.”
Proper synching of these diaphragms also offers us the ability to feel less stress and anxiety by getting us out of the “fight or flight mode” of our sympathetic nervous system, and shifting into our parasympathetic nervous system, the calming part of our nervous system. “Many studies show that slow and diaphragmatic breathing increases Parasympathetic Nervous System activity, as measured by blood pressure, heart rate or heart rate variability.”(Gerritsen and Band 2018)
So why don’t most dancers (and humans) have an appropriate breath cycle? For one, most dancers have never embraced expanding the belly during an inhale. Ever. And then there’s the multiple cues about keeping the ribs down in front, knitting the ribs together, all the things that our ribs are supposed to do? Most dancers create a compensation pattern by breathing through the neck and upper chest. We neurologically “wire” this into our dancing and soon forget that there might have been another way to breathe.
For Part 1 of the Core, take a moment and try these breathing suggestions. Altering how we breathe can make us feel dizzy or lightheaded, so you will want to be seated in a comfortable position.
1) Sternum Massage: Using a soft ball or making a fist with your hands, massage lightly on both sides of your sternum. Trace all the way up to the collarbone and all the way down below the sternum for about 90 seconds.
2) Allowing the Domes of the Diaphragms to Move in Synchronization:
Breathing through the nose, let your sternum and chest move into a slight arch or extension on an inhale, and let this soften and drop on an exhale. We’re exaggerating the motion of the sternum to help repattern the breath cycle. Visualize the thoracic and pelvic diaphragms descending downward and doming up on your inhale. I find that most dancers are more skilled on the exhalation portion, it is more challenging to soften the pelvic floor and thoracic diaphragms to allow them to descend on the inhale. If this is particularly challenging, you may want to roll out your inner thighs (for many dancers these adductors are holding so tightly they interfere with the movement of the pelvic diaphragm. Visualize the domes of both moving in synch, almost like two domes of jellyfish or parachutes or (insert your own doming image here!) You can start to lengthen your exhale to help shift into your parasympathetic nervous system, Inhale 3 counts, Exhale 6 counts, repeat. Find the rhythm that works for you with a longer exhale.
3) Breath from the heart. The pericardium attaches to the diaphragm, so the heart gets a gentle tug downward on the inhale and rises back up on the exhale. This “journey of the heart” will help calm anxiety and can establish better communication between the brain and the heart.
4) Find the natural response or reaction of your breath cycle. Exhale all the air out of your lungs, almost squeezing it out with an engagement of the transversus abdominus, and instead of our usual vigorous inhale (that we do when we try to breathe properly), very gently inhale through the nose with a focus on the sudden reaction of refilling the lungs and the diaphragm returning to its resting state. This is helpful to feel the filling of the lungs and abdomen and can help ease the upper chest and neck dominance in breathing that is common for dancers. This way of breathing can be used for higher exertion in class and performance, practice connecting this to bigger movement combinations or during brisk walking or running.
There. You don’t have to lie down in a dark room or spend 30 minutes in absolute stillness. (Even though your parasympathetic nervous system might thank you if you did!). Experiment with connecting the thoracic and pelvic floor diaphragms in movement. This may take some time if you have been holding your breath during combinations. Use this intrinsic core awareness like a “dimmer switch” that helps you adjust the intra-abdominal pressure as needed for different movement tasks. See what you find with a new focus on connecting to your breath. It is all part of making you the best mover you can be! Stay tuned for more core next month.
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Gerritsen, R. and Band, G. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity”, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2018; 12: 397.
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Susan Haines is a Dance Kinesiologist based in Bellingham, WA bridging the latest research in fascia, biomechanics, and neuroscience into dance training. Susan is a Level III NeuroKinetic Therapy practitioner; a sophisticated treatment modality that addresses the causes of dysfunctional movement in the motor control center. This work led her to create Dance Conditioning Technique, a unique training system that focuses on foundational strength. She has worked with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin, and Oregon Balle Theatre to create conditioning programs for greater ease in turnout, pointe work, and partnering. She has an MFA from UNCG-Greesnboro where she studied with leaders in the field of Somatics and Kinesiology: Dr. Jill Green and B.J. Sullivan. She is a NCPT Pilates instructor who studied under Carolyn Watson, MS, LaC, and Karen Clippinger. She is trained in functional movement patterning and taping with Dr. Perry Nickelston and is a certified FMT Mobility Specialist. She is on faculty at Western Washington University teaching contemporary, ballet, jazz, and kinesiology in her Apolla Shocks. She has presented her dance conditioning research at conferences nationwide.