We’ve all heard about 5-a-day; in fact it’s become quite the modern mantra.
But what about your 150 a week? Eh?
Standard advice at the moment seems to be that we aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Apparently you can do this however you choose; in one gruelling 2 ½ hr session, or 22 mins a day. I did also read that doing a really intense 3mins a day can take the place of your 150…but that sounds like seriously hard work!
Sadly for keen yogis, our practice doesn’t count towards this goal at all (sighs). Moderate activity is defined as that which raises the heart rate and speeds up your breathing. As we aim to keep the breath rhythmic and even during the class that is not really part of our yoga practice. We might find it happening for brief periods during the class, but certainly not for the whole hour. I wonder how many vigorous sun salutations you would have to do to check off 150 mins a week?
As a result, yoga is not that effective at burning calories either (scientists found that you use only 144 calories in a typical session) and even dynamic forms of yoga fall short of being classed as an aerobic exercise. So, keep taking the stairs and running for the bus!
However, the aspect of our weekly recommended dose of exercise that seems to be less frequently mentioned is muscle strengthening, and the good news is that this is where yoga can help. According to the NHS, you should do muscle strengthening exercise on 2 days each week. In fact, the NHS actually recommends yoga as one way of boosting muscle strength.
Most classes support muscle strengthening by working with our own body weight in postures that challenge the lower body, upper body, back and core muscles. Strengthening is an important aspect of the class, helping to support joints and contributing towards our ability to move the body gracefully and with control. The variety of postures in each class makes sure that all of our muscles get a work out.
So here’s to stronger muscles! However, if you want to build in some government-approved moderate exercise perhaps it’s time to leave the car at home and take a brisk walk to class. Just a thought!
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.
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.
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.
Following on from last week’s post, today my subject is the breath. You don’t need to sit in a formal breathing (pranayama) practice to make the breath and important part of your yoga practice. In fact, it should be part of everything that you do. Once you begin to notice your breath more often, you will realise that it is very susceptible to changes in the body. In fact, a change in your breathing may be the first indicator that something is going on.
For example, if you have a sudden pain, you may suck in a breath and hold it without even realising. When we concentrate we tend to hold our breath too. When stressed, the breath may become shallow and more rapid. And on a more positive note, when we are completely relaxed, our breath becomes deeper and smoother. In ‘The heart of yoga’ Desikachar reminds us that “The quality of our breath is extremely important because it expresses our inner feelings…the breath is the link between the inner and the outer body.”
In our physical yoga practice we may work with the breath in two ways. Firstly we may coordinate movement and breath. Our intention here is to make the movements slow and rhythmic, so they align with our natural breathing pattern. Alternatively we may move into a posture and then watch the breath moving in the body as we spend some time there. We may experience changes in the breath as we do so, we may feel how it moves throughout the entire body. We are constantly learning about our body and our breath and with greater awareness of the inner and outer manifestations of our emotions we can come to know our whole self better.
One of the things that I notice beginners find hardest is to coordinate their breath and movement in class. Yet this is really fundamental to our practice, as it makes us concentrate and by doing so, bring the mind to focus on the matter at hand as well. In daily life we may rarely notice our breath (and body, for that matter!) unless it becomes a problem. Living in our head, we forget about the physical entity that we reside in and if we spare it any thought, it is frequently in connection to how stretchy or bendy it is when asked to perform the contortions of certain yoga postures.
However, as Desikachar points out in his book ‘The heart of yoga’, “Much more important than these outer manifestations is the way we feel the postures and the breath.” As with anything else we learn, it makes sense to begin with easier moves and progress to more challenging ones once we are able. If I decided to learn a foreign language, I wouldn’t begin by doing a degree in it. I would start with something easier. I would also consider my aptitude and make allowances, So with yoga, if there is a physical issue that affects our practice, we need to make adaptations. Desikachar tells us “It is only possible to find the qualities that are essential to asana if we recognise our own starting point and learn to accept it.”
Having considered the outermost sheath of our existence, annamaya kosha, last week, it’s time to delve a little deeper with a look at the energy body or pranamaya kosha. This layer is said to carry the vital energies that regulate the body’s physical functions in 72,000 channels or nadis. These channel, and in fact the whole of the subtle energy body, are not something we can see nor dissect out of the physical body. Rather, they are thought to be more akin to the energy meridians used in acupuncture or the aura visualised by Kirlian photography.
There are said to be three main nadis which run along the alignment of the spine. The central one, sushumna, is bounded on either side by ida and pingala, which connect to the left and right nostrils respectively. These represent the two opposites which our yoga practice seeks to bring into balance. The word hatha itself refers to this balance. Ha means the sun, the hot, outgoing energy linked to pingala. Tha refers to the moon, and the cooling, reflective energy of ida.
To help us bring greater balance to our energies, yoga suggests a variety of things to consider;
- A simple healthy diet avoiding chemical and additives
- Reflection on our attitude to life, seeking greater tolerance
- Tuning in to our natural rhythms and those of nature
- Asana practice to stimulate and balance the body’s physical systems
- Breathing practice such as nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing) to balance the body’s energy systems
At the root of our efforts is an increased awareness; of what we do and how we do it. It is only from this place of initial awareness that we can set out to reject our bad habits and build new ones. One step at a time!
In the Tuesday class we have been trying a practice called the ‘Square Breath’. This might seem like an odd shape for breathing; the lungs are anything but square! However, the name refers to the image we visualise during the practice. We imagine a yellow square in front of us and use this to help us ensure that the four parts of each breath are the same length.
The square breath represents a modification of our normal breathing pattern. Not only do we want the inhalation and exhalation to be the same length, but we are also introducing a distinct pause between each breath. The pauses are the same length as the breaths themselves. This breath retention is called a kumbhaka and it slows down the whole breathing process, balancing our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It is said that when the breath is still the mind is also still. Exploring these short periods of silence can increase our sense of relaxation.
Visualising a yellow square can also contribute to a feeling of peace. It symbolises the earth element, and therefore has a connection to the root chakra, muladhara. Imagining this shape in front of us as we sit and breathe can make us feel more grounded, as we experience the connection to the earth. We draw the awareness gently around the image of the square in time with our breath. Each side represents each of the four parts of the complete breath. As the breath should never feel strained, you can adjust the size of the square you visualise to suit your needs in this simple yet effective practice.
Prana is used to describe the energy in the body as a whole, but the ancient yoga philosophers have also attributed specific names and functions to this energy in certain areas of the body.
The energy in the chest is also known as prana, and is associated with the intake of food, water or air. Prana refers to this nourishment in itself but also to the actions that bring it into the body, the functions of breathing, eating and drinking.
The energy in the lower abdomen is referred to as apana. This energy is associated with elimination from the body. It is both the action of elimination and that which is eliminated. Apana powers elimination of waste upwards, in the exhalation, as well as downwards.
Apana is complementary to prana. Nutrients enter the body under the influence of prana and leave due to effect of apana. If our energies are not in balance, waste (signified by apana) is said to collect in the lower abdomen. This makes us sluggish and heavy. We need to reduce apana to make space for more prana in the body.
In the middle, where prana and apana meet, we have the region of samana energy. Samana is associated with the absorption of nutrients. In this middle area we also find agni, the fire of life. It is said that the inhalation turns the fire downwards to burn the waste and the exhalation turns it upwards to release the waste from the body. This in itself offers an interesting symbolism to explore as we sit and observe the breath.
We can also use this time to bring balance to the inhalation and exhalation. Regardless of our opinions on the existence of prana and agni, it has been shown that a longer exhalation helps to reduce the heart rate and facilitate a sense of relaxation. Start by observing the in-breath and out-breath as they are naturally. You might then go on to gently increase the relative length of the exhalation, to perhaps twice the length of the inhalation. Stay with what feels comfortable and right for you, building the length of the practice over time.
I seem to be having an exceptionally busy week, catching up with myself after being under the weather and not doing so much last week. Dashing around all day, ticking off tasks from my ‘to do’ list, has reminded me of the benefits of taking just a few minutes now and then to stop and just ‘be’.
The power of the pause lies in taking just a few minutes to stop whatever we are doing. It’s rather like taking a break at the motorway services. After rushing headlong towards our destination, amidst the roar of traffic, we can appreciate the quiet when we switch of the engine and get out of the car to stretch our legs.
The pause enables us to briefly let go of our goals for the day and come instead to the experience of our physical being, our breath, our existence from one moment to the next. The pause acts as a way of completely letting go of our need to achieve, just for those few moments. And just like that break at the motorway services, it leaves us feeling refreshed and more able to complete whatever needs to be done afterwards.
For some of us, it can be a rare treat to be able to spend a whole afternoon or even a whole hour doing nothing in particular. This is when those little pauses come into their own. We can all find a few minutes to stop, perhaps sit quietly and focus on the breath. You might be surprised by how much more you get done as a result.