We are always breathing. Our brain stem tells us to breathe, whether we’re asleep or awake, running a marathon or watching TV, whether we have a hacking cough or perfectly clear lungs. Inhale. Exhale. Do it again.
If we don’t think about breathing, it will just happen.
But in yoga, we do think about breathing. We breathe deliberately, and we use breath as both a messenger and a delivery service, to tell our mind that everything is okay and to give our body what it needs in class. We also use breath as a measuring tool, to keep track of how hard we are pushing our edge and whether we’ve gone too far and need to back off.
The quality and mechanics of our breathing both reflect and influence our physical and mental state. Our breathing changes in response to our activities and emotions, but we can also affect our biology and our emotions by purposefully changing our breathing.
In the 26/2 series, we begin and end with a breathing exercise.
The first breathing exercise is Standing Deep Breathing. We sometimes call this Pranayama, even though, technically, Pranayama (prana = fundamental life force; yama = to control) is the Sanskrit name given to all yoga-related breath work.
Benefits of Pranayama/Standing Deep Breathing:
- Increases circulation of oxygenated blood throughout the body
- Begins to warm the body
- Helps lungs reach their maximum expansion capacity
- Loosens shoulders and neck to prepare for Half Moon Pose
- Relieves irritability and relaxes the mind
- Helps to prevent asthma, shortness of breath, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema
- Begins to build concentration and focus for class
Tips for practice:
- Stomach, stomach, stomach! Why do we care so much about you keeping your abdominal muscles tight in this posture? Two reasons: 1) A tight stomach supports your spine. In this posture we begin to warm up the spine by moving the only the neck. Your contracted abdominal muscles help to keep the rest of your spine stable and straight. 2) A tight, sucked-in stomach also creates pneumatic pressure in the chest cavity so that each deep inhale expands your ribcage, stretching and strengthening your intercostal muscles so that your lungs can work more effectively during class and when you walk out the door. Yes, stomach in on the inhale and the exhale!
- Use a constricted throat. Learning to do this is a little bit like learning to whistle – – you might need to play around find the right spot, but eventually you’ll get it. Here’s one trick to help you find the right spot: Start with the exhale. Exhale out of your mouth like you are trying to fog up a mirror. Pay close attention to what has tightened in your throat, just behind your jaw and below your nose. Close your mouth, and inhale, maintaining that constriction. The inhale is almost a snore, but not as rough, and lower in the throat. The sound is not made with your vocal chords, nor is it a sniff through your nose. Constricting your throat warms the air coming into your body and allows you to take long, slow inhales and exhales.
- Keep your spine straight and your chest lifted on the inhale and the exhale.
- Your knuckles are glued to your chin throughout the posture, and there is gentle pressure between them. On the inhale, pressure of the chin against the knuckles creates length in the neck. On the exhale, gentle pressure of the knuckles against the chin creates more motion in the neck.
- At the end of the exhale, your elbows touch away from your chest.
- Open your eyes! At the end of the inhale, you are looking into your own eyes in the front mirror. As you begin the exhale, look up and back.
- Contract your legs and your hips. Your lower body is active and strong.
- Use the full six counts for each breath and synchronized motion. There is a slight pause in between. Stay with the group.
- It’s normal to feel some compression in the neck and fatigue/burning in the shoulders, but not pain or extreme pressure.
At the end of class we do two sets of 60 breaths in an exercise called Kapalbhati/Blowing in Firm.
Benefits of Kapalbhati/Blowing in Firm
- Forces carbon dioxide out of lungs, making room for fresh oxygen
- Improves elasticity of lungs
- Strengthens abdominal muscles
- Massages abdominal organs
- Aids in digestion
Tips for practice
- If sitting in a kneeling position is very uncomfortable, it’s okay to sit cross-legged in Kapalbhati.
- In Pranayama/Standing Deep Breathing you use your abdominal muscles to support our spine. In Kapalbhati, use your arms to support your spine so that your belly can alternate between contraction and relaxation. If you are kneeling, palms on your thighs, elbows straight. If you are sitting cross-legged, arms rest on your legs, elbows straight, palms up.
- Truly relax your belly to begin with. Let it go. Think Buddha belly.
- On the exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle a foot in front of you. Your jaw and lips are relaxed.
- Notice how as you do this, your abdominal muscles contract.
- Allow the abdominal muscles to relax, and you will naturally inhale.
- Contract the abdominal muscles again to create the next exhale.
- Try to stay with the group. On the second, faster set, keeping up can require intense concentration and focus, which is a wonderful way to end class.
- Only your stomach moves – try not to bounce!
- It’s normal for this to feel awkward at first. Like everything in class, do your best, listen carefully to instructions, observe your fellow students, and you’ll get it!
–Ellen Olson-Brown, The Hot Yoga Factory Chelmsford