I can't say how many times I have seen 'Breathe' written in association with yoga. Thousands, no doubt! So, as a yoga teacher and a yoga and meditation practitioner of many, many years, I’m really embarrassed to admit I don't always breathe well. As I sit to write this newsletter I am prompted to check that I am breathing in a relaxed and gentle way.
The lungs encompass the heart in the chest cavity with the diaphragm sitting like an umbrella at the base. When we are feeling relaxed, the required amount of air enters and expands the lungs gently around the heart, mainly in the bases with the relaxed descent of the diaphragm. Occasionally we take a deeper breath to get a little more oxygen in and may stretch out our chest instinctively. When we are stressed or busy or tensely concentrating we tend to hold the breath or breathe shallowly - instead of using the diaphragm effectively we often use the muscles in the neck to lift the ribs in the top of the chest. This describes me if I'm having a busy day and have not the awareness to notice and then the discipline to - take the time out to relax and resume a fuller, more nourishing breath. Now I think computers do this to me and probably you too. Associating computers with having a million things to do, the minute I look at one I stop breathing and get a tense neck. But alas, the benefit of awareness - I'm getting much better at 1. stopping, relaxing and breathing and 2. breathing in a relaxed way while I type away - I'm doing it now!
So, what is the best way to breathe?
- Relaxed abdominal breathing is a nice relaxation technique - concentrating on the rise and fall of the abdomen with the in and out breath. The descending diaphragm displaces the abdomen. This can be enhanced by gently lengthening the out breath, squeezing in the pelvic floor and lower abdomen.
- As we do in class we can practice a little pranayama. Different to relaxed breathing this involves keeping the abdomen a little taut on the in breath to maximise expansion of the ribcage. The lungs surround the heart and a 'complete yogic breath' involves breathing in and out fully. Try to lead the breath with the chest - the shoulders and neck are not involved and stay relaxed. You might like to count the length of the out breath and match the in breath - so that they are equal.
- Alternate nostril breathing is also a nice soul soothing technique. We occlude the nostrils with the tips of thumb and ring finger. You can tuck the other fingers into the palm or rest them on the eyebrow center. Commence with an exhale, then inhale left; exhale right; inhale right; exhale left. Continue in this manner for a few rounds (and over time a few minutes) until finishing with an exhale through the left. If the nose is blocked you can visualise the practice or check with your yoga teacher for other practices to clear the sinus.
- And take a break from your sitting posture regularly. Have a stretch out in an asana and flow between them with the breath – cat/cow or up face/down face dog for instance or exhale into a twist side to side.
Patanjali gives good guidelines for yoga that are applied to asana and I think could be applied to our body at all times. (Sutra1.31) Pain, depression, body fatigue and disruption of breath flow accompany distraction (from yogic union). If we were to intervene when we notice these (as we sit at our computers), our mind-bodies would be a lot happier and we would remember yoga!
The breath is so important, as it is a free and easy tool to improve physical health of the heart and respiratory tract. It also has a profound effect on our hormones. The aforementioned practices down regulate hormones associated with the stress response - (adrenalin and cortisol) and increase happy hormones (serotonin and endorphins). This is more restorative and healing for the physical body and also gives a greater feeling of mental well being - with regulation of emotions and clear thinking. Breathing practices provide a nice lead in for meditation.