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.
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.
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.