Take a deep breath: Part 3

A great way to learn more about how your body breathes is to spend some time using the hands to feel the movement of the body with the inhalation and exhalation. Using your hands in this way helps to bring your awareness to the relevant part of the body and the touch can also enhance your breath into this area.  This simple practice can be enjoyable and relaxing to do at night just before you go to sleep, or a way of recharging your batteries if you have a spare 10 minutes at any time in the day.

Start by lying in semi-supine and place your hands on your belly so your fingers are barely touching in the middle.  As you inhale, the breathe moves down into the lungs and there is a gentle rise in the belly.  You may feel your hands lifting, perhaps the fingers will move further apart.  Focus on this movement, feel the sensation of the body breathing beneath your palms.  If you don’t feel much (or anything!), don’t worry, just imagine the subtle movements taking place.

After a few minutes, when you feel ready, move your hands a little higher so they are now resting on the lower ribs.  Again, aim to position them comfortable to they can rest with the middle fingers touching if possible.  Now focus your awareness on the movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  You may feel the fingers move apart as you did with the belly.  In addition you may feel a sideways movement under palm of each hand.

The final stage is to move your hands to rest on or near your shoulders or collarbones, to sense the movement in the upper chest.  Find a position that allows your arms to relax, ideally with your elbows touching the floor.  The movement here may be more subtle, as the breath moves into the uppermost part of the lungs.

And that’s it.  After this final stage, you might like to rest the arms beside you and relax for a few more minutes before you get up.  Stay with an awareness of the body inhaling and exhaling, imaging the breathing moving into each of these parts of the lungs as it brings new energy into the body.

Enjoy!

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Take a deep breath: part 2

When we lie down at the start of the class, I might suggest that you sense the movement of breath in your belly.  Feel it rising during your inhalation and falling during your exhalation.  This is called abdominal breathing, as the majority of the breath’s movement is felt in the belly.  This is a very relaxed way of breathing, quite the opposite to the ‘chest breathing’ pattern that I mentioned last time.  The movement happens because the chest and the abdomen are separated by the diaphragm.  During inhalation, this flexible sheet of muscle is able to move down, allowing the lungs to fill with air, and the result is that the belly appears to expand as the abdominal organs are moved to accommodate this expansion.

Having learned to feel this movement, we now need to harness it for our yoga practice.  If we maintain a slight (and I mean slight!) tone in the abdominal muscles, just enough to limit this expansion of the belly, the diaphragm is unable to move down as far.  The downward movement is accompanied by a lifting and opening of the ribs, giving a sense of widening at the bottom of the ribcage.  There is still some movement in the belly, but much less than when you were laying down doing your abdominal breath.  This diaphragmatic breath is not just used in yoga, but in martial arts and by performers such as musicians and public speakers.  Using this diaphragmatic breath is helpful when doing yoga postures as the tone in the abdominal muscles helps to support and protect your back as you practice.   When the body is upright the abdominals may tone naturally, but in many postures we may need to think about it consciously to begin with.

Lying down and breathing into the belly at the start of the class is a good place to experience the smooth, even breath that we want to use during the practice.  You may notice a subtle pause between the breaths, but they flow smoothly in and out with a quiet, even rhythm.  We want to apply this to our diaphragmatic breathing as well, allowing the exhalation to flow seamlessly into the inhalation.  Paying attention to your breath during the class will help you to notice any changes as they arise and work with them.

If this all sounds very complicated, don’t worry!  You may need to think about it for a while, but like riding a bicycle and driving a car, once you have become used to it, diaphragmatic breathing will become second nature and you will wonder how you ever breathed any other way.

In part three we will look at a simple way to connect to your breath.

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Take a deep breath: Part 1

One of the key differences between a yoga class and many other forms of exercise is that in yoga we generally aim to be aware of our breath as we work into the different postures.  In addition, classes may often include a specific breathing practice.  Co-ordinating movement with breath helps us to move in a slow and controlled manner, whilst the way we breathe as we maintain postures can deepen our experience of their benefits.

Although breathing is a fundamental part of our experience each moment of each day, we may not normally pay a great deal of attention to our breath or how we are breathing at any given time.  That’s all well and good, as if you had to remember to breathe the chances are you wouldn’t have much time to think of anything else! However, despite this, it is possible for habits to develop that affect the body’s capacity to breathe effectively.  For example, the urge to look slimmer can make us pull the belly in, restricting the flow of breath to the bottom of the lungs.  This can lead to a ‘chest breathing’ habit, where the belly is actually pulled in during inhalation to resist the natural expansion of the belly at that time.

The lungs extend from the bottom of the rib cage right up behind the shoulder blades, enclosed for protection by the rib cage.  As we inhale, the rib cage needs to lift and open to accommodate the breath.  Flexibility in the muscles around and between the ribs will enable this to take place more freely.  The shoulders rest on the rib cage, so tension in this area may limit the expansion of the lungs in the upper part of the chest. Tension here can spread to the shoulder blades, neck, head and jaw, giving you plenty of reasons to use yoga to relax!

The various spinal movements incorporated into a typical yoga class help to bring movement to the muscles in the chest.  A side stretch or a twist can open out the muscles between the ribs and working with the shoulders and free up tension here too.  Tension in the hips can also lead to tightness in the upper body as it may not feel supported, so working to bring movement to the hips and legs can also free up the chest and shoulders.  In these indirect ways we can help the body to breathe is a more relaxed way, so our resting breath can be fuller and more comfortable.

In part two we will look at the natural diaphragmatic breath.

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How is photography a meditation?

If you look up ‘meditation’ online you will find myriad methods, all claiming to provide you with great benefits;  find peace of mind, relax, de-stress, solve all your problems.  All this choice is hardly calming; where on earth to start?

Essentially, meditation involves paying attention.  In the yoga tradition set out by Patanjali, there are there are two inward-looking practices.  The first of these is dharana or concentration and the second is dhyana, meditation.  Dharana is binding the consciousness to a single spot, whilst in dhyana there is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

These qualities can be found in a formal meditation practice, usually sitting, but also whenever we are totally immersed in an activity to the exclusion of everything else.  Meditation is a non-doing.  We are training the mind to be less reactive and more stable, developing patience and practising being non-judgmental.  The Buddhist tradition has the wonderful idea of the ‘monkey mind’, bouncing all over the place and never still.  Meditation is taming the monkey.

Some people take easily to a seated practice and find it easy to focus the mind.  For many of us however, the moment we sit still and aim to focus on one thing, such as the breath, the mind seems to become more active than ever.  It may just be we are now noticing the thoughts, but whatever the reason it can be very frustrating!

For this reason, it can be helpful to have a stronger ‘anchor’ to keep the mind from wandering.  More to engage the mind, to draw it into the present and give it less opportunity to wander elsewhere.  The complete absorption in the subject at hand frees the mind of unwanted thoughts by providing a more attractive alternative.

And this is where photography comes in.  Photography becomes meditative when our whole being is immersed in the practice and we take the time to observe carefully, to align body and mind before receiving the image onto the camera’s sensor by pressing the shutter button.  It helps us to cultivate the habit of seeing more clearly, becoming more awake to each moment and really exist in the here and now.

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The spaces in between

As human beings we are all individual, moving and breathing at different rates.  In class, this means that when we set out as a group to co-ordinate a movement with the breath for specified number of times, it is unlikely that the whole class will finish simultaneously.  Sometimes you may find you finish a little earlier than others, leaving you with some ‘spare’ time before the next movement is introduced.  So, what do you do with that time?

If you are new to yoga, the idea of pausing during the class may seem strange.  You might feel the urge to fill in the gaps with some extra movements, getting more ‘exercise’, or maybe take time out to have a drink, chat to your friend.  You might want to reflect on what you tend to do during these pauses, and how you feel about them; what might they say about your attitude to how you spend your time in other situations, your reaction to other situations when you are obliged to wait or doing things you don’t want to do?

We spend so much time ‘doing’ that sometimes there is precious little time left for ‘being’.  We can feel that we need to get on, to avoid ‘wasting time’.  And so we rush from one thing to the next, planning and strategizing, ticking all the boxes, with little attention to the present moment.  These pauses in class are a valuable opportunity to reconnect to your breath and to just ‘be.   If we are sitting you might adopt child’s pose or a simple seated position that is comfortable for you.  If we are standing you can come back to mountain pose.

Focus your awareness on your body as it breathes.  Watch the inhalation and the exhalation, tuning in once more to the rhythm of your breath marking each moment as it passes.  There is no rush, nowhere else to be, no need to get on.  Just ‘being’ in class is as important as the other things we do there.  Maybe you could try this next time you are obliged to wait in line at the supermarket checkout or bus stop, using these moments to reconnect to your inner self, to take a little time out for you.  After all, you are there anyway, you may as well be really there!

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Getting a good night’s sleep

Research has highlighted the impact of poor sleep on our well-being.  Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and poor brain function have already been linked to poor sleep patterns but now researchers at the University of Surrey have shown that when we only sleep for a few hours a night the pattern of activation of over 700 genes is changed in the body.  Key findings were changes in the body’s response to damage and stress through the immune system.  In addition, research at Yale University has shown that our natural body clock is disturbed and it has already been shown that our immune system is stronger at certain times of day than others, so these changes can also affect our ability to ward off disease.

Common suggestions to help get a good night’s sleep often include avoiding a heavy meal, caffeine or alcohol late at night.  Ensuring the room is well ventilated, dark and not too warm can help to convince your body it’s time for sleep.  Yoga may also have a beneficial effect and I have often been told by students that they sleep well after a class.  This may be because of the relaxing effect of yoga, created by our concentration on controlled movement and on the breath.

This focus for our practice can result in a change in the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of body, moving us away from a ‘fight or flight situation where we are fired up for activity to a relaxation response where the body’s systems emphasise rest and repair.  This is associated with a lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure and slower breathing.  In fact, it is not uncommon for people to ‘drop off’ during the final relaxation in class, even if it is only 5 minutes long.  It’s as if the class has primed them for sleep.  By lying down they give their body permission to rest…and off they go.

A  yoga class can act as a ‘breathing space’ in the day or week, a time to let go of all the thoughts that are keeping your mind busy and allow both mind and body some time to be restful.  If sleep can be a problem for you, aim to maximise the benefits of this relaxing effect when you get home.  Late night chores, surfing the Internetor other activities are likely to break the mood and wake you up again.  Instead, aim to devote the remainder of that evening to quiet time and take advantage of the benefits of a restful night’s sleep.

 

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A twist in the tale

Last week we  looked at twisting postures and I thought it would be interesting to consider the impact of twisting postures on breathing.  A full, relaxed breath generally moves down to the bottom of the lungs and results in the expansion of the belly.  This is often most obvious when lying in semi-supine or savasana.  When we come to stand, this movement can be less pronounced, as the abdominal muscles naturally tone to support the spine.  The diaphragm mediates between the belly and the chest when we breathe.  If this is stabilised (as when we tone upwards through the pelvic floor) the breath needs to expand more into the chest to avoid the breath’s volume being reduced.  The tissues of the chest and rib cage need to be flexible to accommodate this movement; tightness in the upper body can restrict the tidal volume of the breath.

In twisting postures the abdomen and chest are both constricted as muscles are stretched by the spinal rotation.  They are therefore less able to expand further to accommodate the breath.  This restriction can be compounded in closed twists, where the belly is turned to face the thigh.  If the belly (and chest, in some postures) is pressed against the thigh, the breath will be even more limited and breathing movements will occur mainly in the upper rib cage. This can naturally lead to a breathing pattern which consists of a short inhalation (due to the restriction) followed by a longer exhalation.

Whilst an open twist (turning the belly away from the thigh) will still give us a spinal rotation, there is less of a stretch along the diagonal line of connection through the body.  As a result, an open twist can feel easier and less demanding than a closed twist.  An example of this in a standing posture would be Trikonasana (Triangle) as an open twist, as opposed to Paravritti Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle) as a closed twist.  You could explore the posture further by increasing the extent of your spinal rotation over a number of breaths, moving a little further into the twist each time you exhale.

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Time to relax part 2: I’m in position, now what?

When it’s time for the final relaxation in class you may well think “Aha! time for a snooze!”  Indeed, you may feel like dozing off, as the physical practice has eased bodily tension and encouraged your breathing to slow down.  If the body is very relaxed this may sometimes happen, but the idea of this practice is that while the body relaxes the mind stays in the moment and maintains an awareness of the breath, or any guided practice we may be using that day.

In this pose, we are looking to find a stillness of body, mind and senses, linked by a calm, even breath.  If there is too much tension remaining (mental or physical), we will be unable to keep the mind or the body still.  If there is insufficient attention, we will doze off.

The initial part of the relaxation practice will encourage you to release remaining tension from the body.  We will often seek a sense of weight, as the body feels heavier when it relaxes.  We will focus on the breath, as it settles into a steady, even rhythm (this is probably the point at which you want to drop off!).

We may stay with awareness of the body during the practice or sometimes use a visualisation, such as a healing light or imagining g a journey to a relaxing place.  Visualisations give the mind an anchor to focus on whilst you relax and can boost your creativity as you practise envisioning the scenes described.  They can also harness the power of positive thought to help you feel rested, healed and peaceful.

Savasana is known as the corpse pose, and here we allow ourselves to rest completely, as we might after death, free of all tension in mind and body.  At  the end of the practice, we move to the recovery position.  This gives us some time to realign ourselves with the present moment and its similarity to a foetal position also symbolises a new beginning, ready to start again without the weight of previous tensions holding us down.

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Time to relax part 1: finding savasana

“Bring the body down to the mat in savasana or semi supine for our relaxation.” It’s the end of the class, the last few minutes and it’s time for our relaxation.  This is an opportunity to allow the body to completely relax and absorb the benefits of the previous hour or so.   Before we can do our relaxation practice, we need to bring the body into a suitable position, generally savasana (corpse pose) or semi supine.  In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar dedicates a whole chapter to the practice of savasana, complete with figures to show the detail of the alignment, indicating the importance of this posture.

When we settle the body down to the mat in savasana it is important to position it in a balanced way, with the spine aligned along the length of the mat.  This will mean that the energy can flow evenly and we are not restricting the blood supply to any part or imbalancing the muscles, eg with the feet crossed.  In savasana the legs are straight.  Some space between the feet will make it easier for the legs to relax, and the feet can just flop to the sides.

If this is not comfortable for you, you could try semi-supine instead or place a support such as a folded blanket under either the lumbar spine of the top of the thighs.  You may also wish to place something under the head so the forehead is slightly higher than the chin.  It is best to close the eyes, as we want the awareness to be with the body and breath rather than with the surroundings.  The eyelids should be soft and the gaze of the eyes behind them relaxed.  This helps to draw the awareness inside, towards the inner world.

The position of the arms is very important to help the chest and shoulders relax.  The temptation is to have the arms on the mat, but unfortunately this is frequently a bit too close and tension is maintained in the shoulders.  The ideal position will vary from person to person but generally speaking you need to allow some space between the upper arm and the rib cage.  Then roll the arms outwards from the shoulder so the palms face up.  It may be helpful to scrunch the shoulders up to the ears to feel the tension and then let it all go, perhaps with a sigh, so they settle down.  If having the arms straight is not comfortable, an alternative would be to bend the elbows so you can place the hands softly on the belly.  It’s best not to link the fingers, as this can stop the movement of breath into the belly as you relax.

After a while, coming into savasana will become second nature, but as with any posture a little trial and error is required to find the best position for you.  You can always experiment at home so you can make the most of our relaxation next time you come to class.  Next time we will look at what we are actually trying to do during the practice.

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Movement and breath

A characteristic of many yoga practices is the co-ordination of movement and breath.  We can use the breath to help us to move in and out of postures and to work more deeply whilst we maintain a posture.  Breathing involves the movement of the spine as well as the ribcage and diaphragm and it is this movement that we can enlist to help us with our posture work.

Inhalation involves a lifting and opening of the ribcage and is associated with a straightening of the thoracic spine.  Conscious use of the inhalation during movements that require these changes will allow the breath to help our movement and the movement to help our breath.  For example, we might inhale as we move into a backbend, as we lift the arms or as we straighten the spine from a forward bend.  Conversely, during exhalation the ribcage lowers and the thoracic spine becomes more curvy, as in spinal flexion.  The exhalation can, therefore, help us to move out of a backbend or into a forward bend and links naturally with a lowering of the arms.

During the exhalation the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominal region contracts.  This can be used effectively to move us into a spinal rotation or a side bend.  Whilst in the side bend, we can focus on breathing onto the uppermost side of the ribcage, helping to open out this area.  During a spinal rotation, you may notice how the exhalation can help you to move deeper into the posture, whilst the twist tends to unravel slightly as you inhale.

Co-ordinating the movement with the breath into short sequences helps us to slow our movements down, fitting in with our own natural rhythm, and the concentration needed to co-ordinate movement and breath in this way also focuses our attention on what we are doing at that moment in time. By becoming more aware of how we breathe, we soon begin to notice more subtle changes in our breathing pattern which could be indicative of working too hard or in an inappropriate way. By responding to these signals we can learn to work in a way that is healthier for both body and mind.

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