GYROTONIC® LEVEL 1: Canoeing As An Exercise for Better Breathing

By Dominika Borovansky Gaines
Specialized GYROTONIC® Master Trainer & Director/Phoenix GYROTONIC


The coordination of the upper and lower body for optimal movement is dependent on good mechanics in the breathing mechanisms of the body, in particular the thoracic and pelvic diaphragms and intercostal spaces. There are many exercises in the GYROTONIC Level I material that assist with better breathing. The addition of conscious, rhythmic breath to all the fundamental movements–alternating longer exhales with inhales, squeezing and pumping breath–begins the process of stretching, strengthening and revitalizing the muscles of respiration. From the first lessons, Spinal Motions series begins creating dimension in the intercostal spaces of the ribs through flexion and extension, lateral flexion and rotation of the spine; specific breathing patterns affect the movement of thoracic and pelvic diaphragm; the opening and alignment of the shoulder girdle assists in maximizing the girth of the upper body.

Of critical importance here is understanding how the ribs move during normal respiration; with each inhalation the ribs move torsionally, pivoting at their attachment at the spine somewhat like a bucket handle. Each rib can move individually and the entire rib case does not need to move all at once. For coordinated strength, the lower ribs should maintain a connection to the pelvis, allowing the abdominals to engage to support the spine, while the upper ribs expand. As the breath expands the torso cylindrically (three-dimensionally) it becomes less necessary to use the muscles of the neck, such as the scalenes, as primary breathing muscles.

As a longtime GYROTONIC practitioner, I struggled for years to do Canoeing without feeling a sore neck the next day. I knew that I had tight shoulders and I now know that I had been over-using my upper trapezius, superspinatus and scalene muscles to perform this exercise. As I have re-assessed my alignment and become aware of my habit of rib thrusting, I have also become a better breather. Through this process I made discoveries that others may find beneficial when learning and/or teaching Canoeing. These discoveries stem from the idea of the breath as a primary facilitator of the spine, rib and arm movements of the Upper Body Series.

Following on the expansion of the breath into the sternum during Simple Twist and Pull Leaning Back, I have developed an extended Canoeing Prep series that supports expansion of the ribs without the necessity of lifting the shoulders. As a variation on the single arm Canoeing preparation where the arm lifts in Eagle to about shoulder height, I have the student: 1) curl back on the exhale; 2) raise both arms to the side while inhaling with a focus of breathing into the lateral ribs, 3) exhale back to the curl with lowered arms, and then 4) reach toward the tower again on inhalation. Here I focus on raising the arms into Eagle without the lifting the shoulders, by reaching the arms from the underside, feeling the width of the rib cage. An image that has worked very well is: “imagine that you are wearing a jacket with wide shoulder pads and you have big frizzy hair (remember the 80s, anyone?!). As you open your arms to the side, you don’t want your jacket to muss your hair.”

Next I move into Canoe Prep with a single arm reaching to Eagle as the body spirals. Having explored the expansion of the ribs laterally in the previous exercise, I cue the weight transfer to one hip as a side bend from spinal motions and again emphasize the inhalation action as support for the movement. Having learned to also reach laterally through the arms and keep the supraspinatus in check, the single arm raises with more ease and there is less neck tension. I use the same 4-count pattern (inhale-reach, exhale-curl, inhale-open the side, exhale-return) as the previous exercise.

Next I introduce a sagittal plane Double Arm Canoeing with no torso rotation. By using both arms in mirror action, I can focus on the bow curl support of the abdominals maintaining a rib-to-pelvis connection as the arms trace the pathway from tower, toward bench, to the sides and then overhead before the dive. This motion is enhanced by the previous rib work, which has expanded the rib cage postero-laterally, creating breadth in the back while the abdominals eccentrically support from their attachment at lower ribs and pubis. I have frequently incorporated the use of dowel in the hands (without straps) used two ways: 1) to finesse the action of the wrist, forearm and shoulder from the apex of the motion through to the dive, and 2) to clarify the movement of the arm initiating from the head of the humerus rather than from the elbow or forearm. This variation is actually quite fun to perform and builds up a nice sweat.

Here is a brief look at this sequence:

Finally, when I see that the sagittal Canoeing motion has been well coordinated through breath, motion and rhythm, I will give Single Arm Canoeing as it is described in the GYROTONIC Foundation material. Now I and/or my client can experience the delight of the fluid, full-bodied motion of Canoeing without undue stress on the neck and shoulders and benefit from enhanced respiration and, thus, increased aerobic capacity.

GYROTONIC® is a registered trademark of Gyrotonic Sales Corp and is used with permission

3 thoughts on “GYROTONIC® LEVEL 1: Canoeing As An Exercise for Better Breathing

    1. Hello, Sandy,

      I have found that in teaching I do the most learning. This perspective has come to me only after teaching this exercise for 15 years. 🙂 The human machine is such a marvel. I am always learning too!

      Please feel free to email me if you have any questions.


  1. Thank you, Dominika, for so much detail and correlation to all the work the body is doing to make this delightful movement. Besides the wonder of the muscles/skeleton/brain/breathing, this exercise is so playful and makes me happy. The video editing is very nicely done.

    Now, to digest all the info:)

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