Breathing seems so simple. We breathe in, we breathe out–naturally and without conscious thought. Perhaps we should pay a little more attention to our breath. It is the life force that exists in all of us. Without the breath, there is no essence and there is no life. As babies, our breathing is full, deep and expansive. Somewhere along the way, we adopt less efficient patterns of breathing that contribute to muscular tension, stress and negative effects on our health. Efficient breathing has been found to have positive effects on anxiety, stress, asthma, panic attacks, chronic pain and high blood pressure. Donna Farhi in The Breathing Book reports that breathing in a relaxed fashion can “increase the production of cells for immune system activation, promote bone repair and growth, as well as enhance the cellular, hormonal, and psychological processes”. Take a moment to pay attention to the way you breathe and notice:
- Where do you breath? High in your chest? Low in your belly?
- Is your breathing fast or slow?
- Are you inhalations and exhalations the same length?
- Are your breaths smooth and even? Jerky?
- Do your breaths feel shallow? Or deep?
- Does your breathing feel effortless? Labored?
Beginning to notice some the the characteristics of our breath helps to increase awareness. With awareness comes the ability to change habitual breathing patterns for the better.
The primary muscles used in respiration are the diaphragm, the small muscles between the ribs called the intercostals, and the abdominals. The secondary muscles used in breathing include muscles higher in the neck, chest and back. A healthy breathing pattern is relaxed, slow and wavelike. It arises in the diaphragm and is seen in the in-and-out movement of our stomachs. In a moment, we will explore diaphragmatic breathing.
Many of us tend to carry tension in our upper back, neck and shoulder. This can be exacerbated by prolonged sitting with forward rounding of the shoulders which tends to tighten the front of our body and overstretch our backs. Performing yoga poses that help to open the front of our body and loosen up the spine can be helpful before engaging in breathing practices.
Seated Cross-Legged Twist: Sit in a comfortable cross legged position. Elevate your hips by sitting on a folded blanket or small cushion if your pelvis tends to tilt backwards. Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind your left hip. Take a deep breath in through your nose, as you exhale turn towards the left, feeling the twist starting in your pelvis, then moving up through your abdomen, chest and head. Repeat on the opposite side.
Passive Back Bend: Placed a rolled blanket, bolster or firm pillow on the floor horizontally. Lie back over the blanket/bolster/pillow with your shoulder blades aligned at the top. Bring your arms up to rest by your head, extend your legs. Allow your chest to expand.
Cobra: Start lying on your stomach, legs extended. Bring the palms of your hands alongside your chest, elbows hugging in towards your body. Press your hips and legs into the mat at you lengthen through the top of your head. On an inhale, bring first your belly, then chest and shoulders off the ground, allowing your chest to open.
Now that the body is ready, try this exercise in belly breathing, taken from Yoga As Medicine by Timothy McCall, M.D.;
Lie on your back or find a comfortable seated position. Observe your breath, without attempting to change it. Then, inhale, and on the next exhalation gently contract your abdominal muscles, bringing your navel in the direction of your spine. With little or no muscular effort, let your abdomen gently lift as you inhale. Breathe this way for a minute or so, then pause to observe any changes in your mind or body.
Other ways of lengthening our inhalations:
In the next post, I will provide ways in which we can help children deepen their breath.
Breath of Life
I breathe in All That Is—
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed
vastness beneath the
mind, I breathe my
way to wholeness
Each breath a “yes,”
and a letting go,
a journey, and a
By Danna Faulds, from her book Go In and In: Poems From the Heart of Yoga (Peaceable Kingdom Books, 2002).
Love & Light