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I was working with someone recently who had a great deal of back pain. She was lying on her side on the table and I was gently exploring the area where her spine connected to her ribs. “What are you doing” she asked.
“I’m exploring how your ribs move,” I answered.
She shot up and stared at me in disbelief. “My ribs are supposed to move?” She was incredulous. After she calmed down, I assured her that she moved her ribs all the time: bending, reaching, twisting. They do all these marvelous movements without us ever noticing. But when back pain, shoulder pain, even neck pain strikes, we rarely think that it might have something to do with the ribs.

While it’s true that the bones of the ribs can look like a cage, it’s an inaccurate image. Each rib can move in relation to the others, coming together and apart according to the activity. The bars of a cage are immobile. For some people, this “cage” becomes almost like a suit of armor, over protecting parts of the trunk. Emotional trauma often affects breathing and posture, which causes the ribs to seem almost stuck, leading to a vicious cycle of immoblization. My ribs are stiff, my breathing gets shallow. My breathing is shallow, my ribs move less, etc. That’s when the ribs do become prison bars! As student told me a story of a faculty meeting at his school where someone had proposed a program he was uncomfortable with. “I sat there and folded my arms across my chest as I listened to the proposal. I don’t think it’s a habitual posture for me, but as the other teacher talked, I felt myself full of resistance to his idea. All of a sudden I realized that my arms were holding my chest so tightly that I was barely breathing. I put my arms down by my sides and instantly felt more air coming in. As my ability to breathe increased, I was literally better able to take in his idea, let it move around in me.”

A frozen rib cage interferes with freedom of expression. After all, even an exhale is an “expression” of air! In theater there is a saying, “The chest does not lie.” This statement infers that your true emotional state is reflected in the carriage of your chest. Unconsciously, we are both communicating as well as reading others’ emotions in sometimes subtle, but sometimes large shifts in the chest. For the last 200 years, science and medicine insisted that the organs in the torso are merely mechanical devices; pumps and bellows that keep the human machine running. The idea that emotional life is somehow connected to these physiological functions was ridiculed. And yet, we would talk about someone walking around with his chest “puffed up.” Or having a “gut feeling.”

Neurotransmitters have been found in the stomach indicating that a “gut feeling” may be a kind of intelligence that informs the thinking brain. New discoveries in the field of neurocardiology are prompting some to call the heart another brain, the seat of the emotional intelligence. While science may have forgotten, or misunderstood its importance in relation to our body language, our “kinesthetic sense” has always been there for us to see as St. Exupery’s Little Prince once said, “Not just with the eyes, but with the heart.”

Here’s a simple exercise to try. Find a neutral stance. Where do you find your chest right now? Is it forward or back of the plumb line? Is this where your chest is all the time? Walk around a little bit and experiment with the position of your chest. Try expanding it , puffing it out. How does that affect the rest of your walk? How do you feel? Sink your chest in and down, as if you had pushed all the air out of your lungs. Walk around a bit like this and notice what comes up.

When you try an exercise like the above, it is important to give yourself a little time to let the posture sink in. Many people are afraid to experience different postures, especially in the chest, because it interferes with our habitual posture, shaking up our self image. But what a wonderful way to experience not only new options for yourself, but how you might better understand others who carry themselves differently from you.