Ribcage Ache • 16 May 2008

I am hearing about ribcage pain from so many. It’s in the deepest forward bends but also the deeper backbends, a bony ache. Maybe it’s the intercostals; maybe it’s in the bones. I don't know if you're all experiencing something similar or not.

For one person I’m hearing there is a sharp catching in which might be the pleurae—the membranes that encase the lungs. Does anyone else get that?

I don’t know about the ribcage ache. I did, early on, snap an intercostal muscle right off—ping, just like that—the one of two dramatic ashtanga injuries I’ve sustained. And occasionally—if I have a big sublaxation high in the spine—I’ll get a sharp tug on a single intercostal attachment just like the sensation that preceded that tear. But that is another topic.

The people who tell me about their ribcages tell me the ache goes away eventually.

Meantime, if the ache is with you, something else for consideration. In anatomy, they say muscles do concentric and eccentric contraction. In sports medicine, there is talk of stretching and counter-stretching. So I am wondering, if you are stretching your ribcage in new ways that are causing stress, doesn’t it make sense to balance this by stretching it from the inside?

I have no idea, but here are two things that happen when I started pranayama practice two years ago. (Sama vritti followed by the first three ashtanga pranayamas.) First, my lung capacity increased dramatically in a short period of time. I had no idea of my lungs or what they could really do before I started lengthening my breath in sama vritti. The first few week were freaky, but control and depth came quickly.

Second, I came to ache for the inside-intercostal stretch of puraka kumbhaka (inhale retention). The same way the frontal hips or the groins ache to be stretched in the afternoons or evenings as the hips begin to open. The same feeling (!), but on the inside of the body. So where as a new asana practitioner I would sneak to my office to stretch the hips, as a new pranayama practitioner I would take these deep, long-held breaths while sitting at the Wilshire/Westwood stoplights or walking across the quad. Pranayama works on the mind-body boundary—all breathing is a play of "spirit," whatever that is. A lot of what is happening in that practice is facing fear, experiencing first-hand your raw love for your life and freezing it for a moment, playing with the heartrate, tripping yourself out on oxygen-deprivation. Nevermind that, honestly. It’s weird.

But the purely physical stretching of the ribcage from the inside is too nice not to experience. It is like being massaged by gentle water-balloons, inside and behind your ache.