The rib cage is a complex bony structure that supports the bones of the shoulders and protects the heart and lungs. Practicing yoga, an ancient system of holistic health, can develop flexibility in the rib cage, but without proper awareness and form, complications may develop. Consult your doctor before practicing yoga, and if you have rib-cage pain that persists or worsens.
Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar stresses the importance of alignment in yoga practice. Practicing yoga with an experienced teacher to ensure this alignment is crucial. For example, back-bending yoga poses lift the rib cage and bring it forward -- but the focus of these poses is not to push the rib cage forward, but rather bending the spine. The rib cage will naturally follow as you bend the spine, but focus on keeping the rib cage with the spine as you bend backward. And in Downward Dog pose, it is a common error for students to dip the lower spine and press the rib cage forward as they become more flexible in the pose. This can result in pain and discomfort in the rib cage. Instead, activate the core and bring the lower ribs inward, holding your spine in a neutral and flat position.
Having strong core muscles will ensure safety and positioning of the rib cage as you perform specific yoga poses. In fact, what might feel like pain from the rib cage itself may be originating from the muscles that attach to the rib cage -- internal and external obliques, serratus anterior and the intercostals. While it's natural to want to strengthen the musculature in and around your rib cage and core, remember to lengthen them as well. Short, tight muscles can lead to pain when stretched beyond their current capabilities.
After practicing yoga poses that open the rib cage forward, such as back bends, it is important to practice complementary poses. Doing so will maintain the proper alignment of your rib cage and prevent injury. After a back bend, sit on your heels and round your spine forward as much as possible, until the top of your head touches the ground. Focus on bringing the rib cage in and following the curve of the spine. Hold the pose for 1 minute and slowly exit.
You may find relief from rib-cage pain by practicing side-stretching yoga postures. Try practicing gate pose, also known as Parighasana, "Yoga Journal" magazine suggests. Starting kneeling on both knees, then straighten your right leg out to the side. Bring your right hand to your right hip and stretch your left arm up toward the ceiling. Stretch over to the right and breathe deeply. Hold the pose for up to 1 minute, rest and repeat on the other side. This pose can open the muscles surrounding the rib cage and improve mobility.