"Men as well as rivers grow crooked by following the path of least resistance." Thomas Jefferson from AZ Quotes.
Boy do I love me some Thomas Jefferson quotes!
I think the meaning of that quote is aimed at corruption, greed, and tyranny. However, there is more we can learn from these relevant words.
From running water to the flow of electricity, all things follow the path of least resistance. Our breathing is no different. During breathing, our bodies are designed to move air into a diagonal movement pattern. Why you ask? The final answer may never be known. But, it may assist us by promoting a diagonal reaching pattern. This, along with our inherent curiosity as humans, drives us to roll from our backs to stomachs, crawl, pull to stand, and eventually walk. But, as with all good things, too much is no bueño. The wonderful folks over at the Postural Restoration Institute have been working for over 20 years to describe what these postural patterns are and how they affect human performance and function.
I have been teaching this to my clients and students for years. I like to think of them as preferred habitual postural patterns. They are driven by our internal anatomy, our nervous system, and our environment. As discussed above, they help us move around on our two feet, arms free, and a freely rotating head so we can explore our world. At the core of all of this is the breath. Because of these patterns, we usually breathe more easily into the front left and the right back of our rib cage. This pattern gets ingrained with practice. This creates a situation of only using 1/2 of our breathing volume. It is only 1/2 of the cycle. It is like only going left, forward, or up. These things are not bad but eventually, we need to reverse and do the opposite.
Following ONLY the path of least resistance creates observable postural lopsidedness. Our eyes and ears maybe different heights, maybe the jaw is pushed t0 one side, one shoulder can become lower than the other, our ribs can look different from the front and back (ever wonder why nearly all of us have some amount of a right rib hump on our posterior?) Many of us choose to stand mostly on the right leg and have different wear patterns on our left and right shoes. All of this is driven by our breath. We ingrain these patterns through repetition (we breathe an average of 28 000 times a day.) We become twisted and crooked. (Lovin' that Jefferson quote eh?) As we solidify the path of least resistance we also make the opposite pattern harder and harder to access. We become rigid, stiff and restricted, only in one half. As we are only using this limited 1/2 of our capacity, our nervous system may very well start believing we are starving for air. This exaggerated fear response can cause increased tension and eventually, pain and decreased performance.
From this standpoint, the unrelenting tension is the driving factor of pain and dysfunction. It often leads to body compensations trying to make up for the deficiency in air flow. It can show up as jaw pain, headaches, shoulder blade pain, neck and back pain, hip pinching, knee, foot and ankle pain. It can even rear its ugly head as stress incontinence, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Irritable Bowel, jaw pain, and attention deficit/hyperactivity like symptoms. Some stress and tension is actually good for you. It drives us to improve and helps us overcome short term hardships and difficulty. My good friend and colleague Ryan Whited at Paragon Athletics likens it to creating a "Tension Suit." But when our tension suit becomes unrelenting, we are unable to rest and recover. Even while we are trying to sleep. Has anyone ever heard the phrase, "Hey relax. Just breathe"? I heard it all the time as a younger, more stressed man. My response would be, "Breathe? I'd love too. I don't know how."
Dr Jim Wittekind is a licensed physical therapist. His main goal is assisting people in learning how to shutdown the system and relax so they can recover and enjoy life. He combines the science of the Postural Restoration Institute with the wisdom of meditation and mindful movement practices to turn down the crazy and enjoy life.