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.