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.
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.
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.
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.
A while ago I read an article in a magazine, on the topic of portrait photography. The author had a ‘top tip’ for making your model look slimmer; tell them to breathe in, he said. This set me wondering how many of us have developed postural and body habits based on messages we have been hearing from an early age, ‘Stand up straight!’ ‘Don’t slouch!’, ‘Take a deep breath in!’, ones that have now become second nature and part of who we are physically and emotionally.
Often the body knows best and works perfectly well when left to its own devices. When we superimpose our own ideas on these patterns we can create imbalance or cause the body to move in a less efficient way. In the case of the portrait photographer, its not uncommon to hear this suggestion to breathe in as a way of making yourself look slimmer. Our response to this suggestion might be a conscious drawing in of the abdomen combined with lifting the ribcage via the auxillary breathing muscles. This will almost certainly make you look slimmer, but you may well have taken a much shallower breath as this reaction is contrary to how the body actually breathes, restricting the lung capacity and bringing tension to the upper back and shoulders.
If the body is taking a full, relaxed breath the belly will actually expand as the diaphragm moves down, making you look larger rather than slimmer, quite the opposite, I imagine, to the effect intended by the photographer in our example above! Our yoga practice can give us a chance to consider our breathing habits and allow us to unlearn any detrimental ones we have acquired over the years, giving the body the freedom to breathe in its own way.
If you have ever wondered what to expect in a yoga class, or have been plenty of times but still wonder why we do what we do when we do, this post is for you!
The class will invariably start with a few minutes of lying down, preferably in semi-supine (more of that another time!), focussing on becoming more aware of the body and the breath. This opportunity to centre ourselves brings our attention to the present moment and allows our breath to settle into a steady rhythm that will guide our practice.
We are then ready to begin our physical practice of the postures, or asanas. This starts with gentler movements and postures aimed at warming the body up in preparation for the main posture. We might revisit postures covered in recent weeks or others that are directly relevant to the main posture. The choice of postures will ensure that the spine is moved in all directions, helping to keeping the spinal column healthy and well-nourished. The main posture is different each week and more time will be allocated to introducing and practising this posture. Afterwards we will do one or more counterposes, which ease the body after the work of the main pose.
The physical practice helps to both concentrate our mind and to relax the body, preparing us for breathing and relaxation or perhaps just enabling us to go home feeling calmer than when we arrived. In a one hour class we may move on directly to a few minutes of relaxation, or else sit for breathing or meditation first. In a longer class this quiet practice will last up to half an hour. And thats it! til next week…
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.”
Pranayama is an important part of any yoga practice. The word is a combination of two Sanskrit words; Prana refers to the energy or life force that embraces the body, whilst ayama means ‘to stretch or extend’. Of course, we breathe every moment of each day, but pranayama is about extending the breath in a way that enhances the body’s energy levels.
Patanjali tells us in the yoga sutras that there should be two qualities which characterise the practice. The first of these is dirga, which refers to a long and steady practice as well as mental focus. The second is suksma, which means ‘fine’ or ‘smooth’.
In our asana practice we can focus on maintaining a healthy breathing pattern. By relaxing the body around the breath we can encourage the breath and body to become one in the performance of the posture. This unity is then extended to the mind, and we are really doing yoga!
In a seated, formal practice of pranayama we might concentrate on lengthening the exhalation. The heart beats in time with our breathing, and it naturally beats more slowly during exhalation. So, by lengthening the exhalation we can slow the overall heart rate and calm the nervous system. This is an ideal practice if you are feeling stressed or just want a little calming time out. Why not give it a try?
This morning I am waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s. As usual they are running late, so I am taking the opportunity to write this post. So often our days are interspersed with periods of time when we have to wait. At the bus stop, queuing in the supermarket, in the kitchen while the kettle boils. This short moments during the day give us the perfect opportunity to practise being mindful.
It’s very easy to become irritated by delays, especially when we feel the pressure of many things to be done that day. But there is generally nothing we can do other than wait, so why not enjoy the time for a little break?
I often use times like this as a chance to reconnect to my breath and just be. Deep abdominal breathing, even for a short period, can trigger a sense of relaxation and calm. The body is revitalised by the improved supply of oxygen as we inhale and exhale fully. Our rate of breathing is connected to our heartbeat so a slower breath helps to slow the pulse as well as calm the mind.
Why not remind yourself to be in the present with this little meditative phrase from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
Even if it is only a minute or so, it’s surprising how it can help. Maybe you can’t find a 15 minute slot in the day to meditate…but what about 15 individual minutes? Allow yourself those moments in the day to breathe…and enjoy. After all, moments are all we have.