Breathing into our practice
LEARNING TO MOVE WITH THE BREATH AND LETTING THE BREATH MOVE YOU…
As obvious as it sounds, it’s worth remembering that breathing is the first thing we do when out of the womb. It is natural and effortless. We don’t need to make it to happen, it just does. However, over time our breathing can become conditioned and even restricted by us holding tension in certain areas of the body.
As yogis and yoginis, we are often reminded that breathing is a fundamental element of our yoga practice… But why is it so? Why is the breath considered so important for our asana (posture) practice? What happens in the body when we breathe? And how and when are we supposed to breathe while in yoga poses?
THE BREATH AS A DOOR TO BODY AWARENESS…
Focusing and sensing how the breath moves inside our bodies can bring clarity of mind as well as allowing us to perceive more subtle sensations. As we gradually become more familiar with ‘what is’, we can begin to recognize ways in which we hold and use our bodies. Where do I breathe? Is it in my chest or in my belly? Is my breath shallow and short, or is deep and smooth? Do I hold tension in any parts of my body?
Learning to stay with the breath can help us to recognize patterns we have become used to, and this allows us to make real changes happen. Being able to connect with our breath can let us move “from” the breath rather than impose movement on the body. Many of us come to yoga as “chest breathers,” meaning we’re accustomed to an unhealthy pattern of initiating the breath from the chest, which can be agitating. When you fall into a pattern of isolated upper-chest breathing, you grossly overuse muscles in the neck and upper body (known as the accessory muscles of inspiration) and under use the diaphragm. As we discover unrestricted breathing – letting the breath freely move inside of us – we also notice that some movements occur spontaneously in our bodies. And they occur in places we thought had nothing to do with breathing! The abdomen, the pelvic floor, the sacrum and lumbar spine, the shoulder girdle… This, of course, if we allow the respiration to happen without tensing up and preventing the subtle flowing dance within our body.
THE ANATOMY OF BREATHING
We all know that the lungs are the organs which take the air into our bodies. As they expand, the air is sucked in. The oxygen taken in by the lungs is then carried around the body and to the cells by the blood. Blood also collects the carbon dioxide expelled by the cells, and carries it back to the lungs. Our out breath is the action of the lungs releasing it into the atmosphere. So the main organs responsible for our breathing are our lungs taking air in and sending it back out, and the heart pumping the blood around the body.
What is less known, is that breathing is facilitated by the help of some muscles. Their role is that of changing the pressure in the torso so that the air can be taken in and be pushed out. The respiratory muscles work to achieve this by expanding the thoracic cavity during inhalation and by making it smaller during the exhalation.
The most important of these muscles is the diaphragm. It is placed in the middle of the torso and it has the shape of a dome. As we inhale it lowers creating more space for the lungs to expand. As it moves downward it also pushes the belly out. As we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up compressing the chest and forcing the air out.
Other muscles involved in the respiration process are the muscles of the neck and intercostal muscles – the muscles between the ribs. As we inhale our rib cage expands front, back and side ways, allowing the lungs to expand as they fill with air.
HOW TO USE THE BREATH IN YOUR PRACTICE
Knowing how our body works when breathing, and developing awareness of the sensations as the process takes place is information which can help us in our yoga practice. In fact we can then learn how to use the breath at our advantage and get the best out of our practice.
When standing there are two actions taking place. On one hand we give in to gravity and release our weight to the earth though our feet. On the other hand we find and experience length and let our body get tall. Our in-breath can help us to find alignment, length and space in the upper body and pelvis, while as we exhale we can deliver our weight down to the ground. These principles can be applied to every standing posture.
Let’s take Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I pose) for example. Once you find the correct alignment of your feet make sure you adjust your pelvis in relation to the front leg. Take an inhalation focusing on lengthening the spine and broadening the torso. As you exhale move your navel in towards the spine, start bending the front leg as you press the feet firmly on to the ground. On the next inhalation bring the arms up with the palms of the hands facing each other. As you exhale find softness in the shoulders and allow your shoulder blades to slide down. As you keep breathing into the pose, at each in-breath keep finding “vertical” length in the sides of the body focusing on the muscles in between your ribs, on the spine and on the crown of your head, your arms up through your fingers. See if you can also find “horizontal” length through your chest, your collar bones and your shoulders. As you exhale keep on softening the shoulders, the muscles of the face and “sink” a little lower into your legs making sure you allow your weight to move towards the ground.
Forward bends are a delicious way to experience the moving “from” the breath. Start in Tadasana (mountain pose). Take few breaths here and focus on the double movement taking place, delivering weight to the earth and lifting up through the spine and all the way through the crown of the head. Come to Uttanasana (Standing forward bend) on an exhalation, making sure that you are bending from your hips without rounding your back. Put a little bend in your knees if the hamstrings are very tight. Take another inhalation allowing the upper body to gently move upwards so that you are not constricting your breathing. As you exhale let the weight of your upper body release to the earth. Gently pull your belly in so that you are facilitating all the air out of your lungs. Take your time to sense how your body naturally wants to move with the breath.
Remember that as we exhale we are creating more space to bend forward because while the air moves out of your body, the diaphragm relaxes lifting upwards, making more “room” for you to bend deeper.
Breathing in back bends is an interesting experience. The aim of these poses is that of extending the spine and of bringing mobility into the thoracic part of the spine (its least mobile part). As this can be a little tricky, see the breath as your best friend. If you are aiming to get into (Cobra pose) you will be lying on you belly. As your abdomen is pressing against the floor, it will be difficult to breathe into it. You will be also engaging the core muscles towards your spine to make sure your lower back is safe and not jamming. What you want to focus on, is breathing into you front and back ribs allowing your torso to become spacious. As you inhale focus on bringing the breath into your chest, breast bone, collar bones and shoulders. Let them all expand and move outwards. As you exhale bring your attention to the shoulder blades and let them slide down your back. As you keep breathing this way and focusing your attention on those areas you will find your way into extending your spine and enjoying space in between the vertebrae.
When you are practising seated, standing or supine twists the principle is still the same: move into the twist as you exhale and make sure you are moving from your core. As we saw earlier, as we exhale the lungs push the air out and the diaphragm softens moving back up. The belly naturally moves back in as it is not encouraged out by the diaphragm. This creates space in the torso and allows your body to twist more easily (and your organs getting a nice massage will thank you for that!). Use the in-breath to maintain length in the spine between the tail bone and the crown of the head and develop a sense of softening as you exhale.
If you are familiar with Sirsasana (head stand) or Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand)you may have
noticed that breathing while upside down can be a little challenging. The abdominal organs rest on top of the diaphragm making it difficult for it to lift them as it wants to move out of the way of the lungs. In shoulder stand the throat is also constricted and the air can’t pass through as freely as it would. While performing inversions we find steadfastness in our core muscles. As we engage them our belly is pulled in to create stability for our pose. Make sure that as you move into the pose, you keep your body relaxed and that you are not holding tension. Keep breathing in a relaxed manner and if at any stage you find it very difficult to breathe, then simply move the knees back down and slowly release the spine to the ground as you come out of the pose.
Remember to honour your body and be patient with it. If we haven’t yet learned how to soften and relax the areas where you hold tension, don’t push yourself into poses just to make the teacher happy or to prove you can do it…your body might just not be ready for them!
Supine poses are a brilliant laboratory to experience the breath. As you lie on the ground you have the possibility to feel the back of your entire torso resting and releasing its weight downwards. As you inhale you can sense the back of your ribs and your shoulder blades pressing against the surface supporting you. At the same time you can feel the belly lifting as it fills up with air, the front of the ribs moving upwards and out to the sides. You can enjoy the chest and the collar bones getting lighter and following the movement of your breath. If you are in Savasana you can enjoy finding space in your body with your in- breath. Let the breath slowly fill you up finding spaciousness and lightness. As you exhale let your body become heavy and let go of the weight. Using the breath this way you can enjoy the breath as a tool of relaxation for both the mind and the body.
Once you discover how to work with your breathing for this purpose, it is easier to understand how to use it in all the other poses.
The important thing to remember in our yoga practice is to allow your body to move with your breath and not to impose movements upon the breath. Move with ease and be sure that if your breathing is constricted and uneasy, it means you’re not performing the pose in the way your body can sustain.
Enjoy your practice as you let it rise from within you…