This month's yoga focus explanation is brought to you by Power Yoga teacher Jamie Savva.
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn't try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn't need others' approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
If you didn’t already know, I’m a thinker. I start thinking about tomorrow, then worrying about tomorrow, then deliberating about tomorrow, and planning and organizing and fretting about tomorrow. I continue on by thinking about yesterday: the things I said, the things I should have said, the things I will say next time. Which inevitably brings us back to tomorrow. Ah!
In this world of constant movement and communication, these are realities we all deal with. In fact, to be responsible adults we are expected to plan for the future and deliberate on the past. The trouble is, when we spend so much time in the past or future, we miss out on the only moment that truly exists, RIGHT NOW. Creating a practice of presence can be one of the most difficult to develop, but it is the most important tool in your yoga practitioner tool belt.
Santosha is the second Niyama, or guideline for working within oneself, that focuses on contentment.
Santosha asks of us to release expectations and worries, and find pure love and ease exactly where we are.
If that sounds impossible to you just know you are not alone. Building a relationship within oneself that is supportive, loving, and content is a lifelong journey, not an overnight sensation. When we cultivate a life practice of contentment, we are present to the beautiful gifts it has in store for us. Does that mean we must stop worrying and planning for our future, or stop learning from our past? No. It simply means we must schedule time to plan accordingly and then move on to the present moment. Once we create peace within, there is so much space for possibility and growth.
Contentment has many different faces. The form it takes for you will be vastly different than your neighbor. For one person contentment looks like staying conscious of negative self-talk. For others, it might include finding joy and light in their physical body.
When it comes to our journey within, we must follow our own path, it’s how we build integrity in our hearts, minds and bodies.
If you are familiar with my classes, you will know what comes first: How can I create and practice Santosha on my mat? The answer is, as always, presence. Creating an honest dialogue within our physical practice is always the opening to figuring out what’s next. Where, among the chatarungas and warriors, can you find contentment? Where can you balance the act of setting goals and the feeling of celebrating where you are right now? For example, perhaps you have been working for some time on landing Crow Pose. You practice the pose, follow the instructor’s cues, and still the pose alludes you. Can you create presence and joy within your practice and value where you are right this moment, as well as work hard to float your feet? Perhaps where you are in the pose right now is exactly where you need to be.
Our mat serves as our mirror and our life-rehearsal space. By applying Santosha to our physical practice and being present to the light it can offer, we are more equipped to access contentment in our everyday lives. Yoga, on and off the mat, is a practice. If we can practice presence and relax with what is we have direct access to gratitude and so much joy.
See you on the mat.
Discard everything that does not spark joy. – Marie Kondo
In June our exploration of the yamas, or moral disciplines, of yoga come to a close with an exploration of the yama Aparigraha, or non-possessiveness.
This yama, essentially, is about letting go and about learning to discern what we need. Aparigraha teaches us to accept what we have and not accumulate more than what we truly need.
Aparigraha teaches us the art of letting go.
In yoga class we are instructed to pay attention to the breath: to deepen the breath, to put our attention on the breath. We exhalefully, knowing that there will be an inhale to follow. We let go of the breath and are nourished by the next. We learn to trust the cycle of letting go to allow space for the next breath in.
We can learn the principles of aparigraha through the inhale and the exhale. Deborah Adele in the book The Yamas and Niyamas says,
What if we could trust life like we trust the breath? What if we could take in all the nourishment of the moment and then let it go fully, trusting that more nourishment will come? Just like the breath gives us nourishment, so does life in the form of homes, work, relationships, routines that bring ease… Aparigraha invites us to practice divine play, experience full intimacy and contact with the moment, and then to let go so the next thing can come.
Expanding our awareness of what non-possessiveness might look like from our physical body to our physical space, we can look to Marie Kondo as inspiration. Marie Kondo is a Japanese author who pens books about organization and simplifying your home and getting rid of items that no longer spark joy. She asks that you regard each item in your home and keep only those that speak to your heart and spark joy. Everything else you should get rid of. Marie Kondo is a master at letting go!
Marie Kondo knows that it is a worthwhile effort to notice the physical things you’ve surrounded yourself with and examine whether these things make you feel free and light or weigh you down. This process can help you experience the difference between enjoyment and attachment.
One other way we can practice non-possessiveness can come up is by managing expectations. How do you demand, whether unconsciously or consciously, fulfillment and comfort from other people and other situations? For example, whenever I go out to my favorite restaurants, I usually order the same thing. My husband pokes fun at me for never being adventurous and trying something new. But I know what I like, right? I know that what I ate here the first time was great, and so why would I order anything else? But what happens when they are out of what I love and I have to order something else? I have a choice to allow this to make me grumpy or upset at them for running out or trying something new that might be as amazing or better than what I usually get. I can choose to be attached to what I wanted or be adventurous and try something else. This is a small example of how expectations can limit experience and make it hard to let go of what you were anticipating.
How to practice Aparigraha in life:
- Let go enough to trust that the next thing will be there to support you.
- Let go of things in your life that are no longer serve you.
- Allow your point of view or expectations about something to be changed.
How to practice Aparigraha on the mat:
- Let go of trying to be something you aren’t and honor your self and your body as it is.
- Let go of envy and jealousy and genuinely celebrate the people around you.
- Be curious about your practice: where will it take you today? What can you learn? What new space can you discover in yourself?
- Stay with your breath. Inhale. Exhale. Trust.
Throughout the month of June we'll be discussing and practicing various aspects of aparigraha at Watershed Wellness. To see a schedule of our classes click here.
As always, we're happy to practice in good company, and hope that you'll join us on the mat soon.
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention, be astonished, tell others about it. – Mary Oliver
Our philosophical focus for May is Bramacharya, or non-excess. This is the fourth of five yamas, or moral observances, that are mapped out by Patanjali in the yoga sutras. These observances are guidelines for how to live a good life. We’ve covered Ahimsa, or non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, and Asteya, non-stealing.
The fourth yama, Bramacharya, asks us to be mindful about consumption in all areas of life.
It asks us to examine what is “enough”. It also asks us to be mindful about how and where we‘re using our energy to avoid living in excess.
There are many ways that excess can show up in life, for example: work, food, exercise, sleep. Over-doing any of these will leave one feeling cut off from being able to truly experience the wonder of life. And yes, it’s possible to even to overdo yoga asana and use yoga classes as a form of escapism.
Bramacharya asks us to leave excess behind and move through the world with wonder and awe, paying attention to each moment.
Practicing bramacharya asks us to consider how we can live lives of moderation. Every day we face choices about what to consume, how to spend our time, and how to interact with the world. The practice of bramacharya is asking us to consider and choose what we put into our minds, bodies and hearts. When we make these choices with intention, we often choose differently. We make space for things that are actually important to us rather than just covering over something or trying to fill a void.
One of the big questions we have to answer for ourselves is why we tend toward excess. Knowing what triggers us to consume in any form is important.
I recently learned about the acronym HALT. A parent of a toddler told me about it – he uses it to help his child assess what they really need in any situation. I wish I’d learned a long time ago as I suspect it would have saved me a lot of anguish over the years.
I can think of many, many times in my life where I acted because of one of these states of being. I tried to feed my mind/body/heart with something rather than just take stock of the situation and feed what actually needed to be tended to: my literal hunger, my emotional state, my need for human connection or my need for more rest. Sound familiar?
As Deborah Adele says in the book The Yamas and Niyamas,
“We have to be able to discern between what the body needs in the moment and the story our mind is telling us.”
Why is it that we reach for something to soothe us rather than taking care of whatever is at the root of the situation?
For the month of April, we’ll be exploring what non-excess looks like in life and on the yoga mat. Some things to consider:
- Is it possible to live in non-excess? Can you consume, work, sleep and play just enough? Examine what is “enough” for you.
- Can you find the wonder in your daily life? Can you take time to slow down and experience what’s right in front of you?
Asteya, or non-stealing, is the 3rd yama (moral discipline). We’ll be exploring different aspects of asteya at the Watershed Wellness yoga studio during the month of April. If you missed our posts about the first two yamas, ahimsa and satya, you can check out the posts here.
It’s safe to say most of us aren’t thieves in the general sense. We don’t steal from our friends’ houses or shoplift from stores. The third yama, asteya, means so much more than not physically stealing from someone else. There are many other ways to steal from ourselves and others. We’ll examine two examples of stealing: self-doubt and lack of clarity.
The root cause of stealing: I’m not good enough
People steal when they have a sense of lack, insecurity, wanting, feeling incomplete. There’s a sense of having to get what you need at any cost.
We steal away our own ability to thrive through self-doubt.
We steal from ourselves when we lack belief in ourselves, have low self-esteem, make judgments or criticisms of ourselves, and demand perfection. All the expectations we place upon ourselves disallow space for self-expression and giving yourself to the world. We get in our own way so much that we can’t do the good work we are meant to do.
This also affects how we interact with each other. Deborah Adele in the book “The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice” talks about how asteya affects our relationships with others:
“When we feel unhappy with ourselves or our lives, we have a tendency to drag people down with us or make snide comments that come from jealousy. When we are genuinely caring of the other, that caring finds expression in ways that feel supportive and tender to the other.”
The role of clarity in asteya
Here’s a quick example of how lacking clarity can be an example of stealing. As a business owner, when I lack clarity about something I waste a huge amount of time and effort. For example, I’ve had a hard time defining a clear and concise time off policy for employees. I’ve not mapped this out likely because I want to give folks who work for us time off, but also need to make money to keep the doors open.
Because I don’t have a clear policy, when someone asks for time off it takes a lot of my energy to determine whether I should grant this person time off. I have to look at the schedule, go back and forth with the employee about what they want and when they might fill in for a future shift. Eventually I’ll land on a decision that is entirely emotional (usually dependent on how I feel that day) and doesn’t feel great to either party. I’m stealing time and energy from myself and also stealing the freedom through clarity from the employee by not having a clear policy in place.
This lack of clarity leaves me (and likely the employee) feeling like there’s a struggle between getting what I need as a business owner, and the employee feeling like they have to push for something as simple as time off. Taking the time to create clear and concise policies saves a lot of time and effort, and the folks who work for us have the freedom of understanding expectations.
The further nuance of this is being able to stand in your own integrity and truthfulness (satya) by examining what you truly need and being able to confidently express your decisions.
The ability to gather your thoughts, communicate with intention and speak from your heart saves time and energy.
How to practice asteya on your mat:
- Practice the mantra: I am enough. Whenever feelings of doubt, lack or insecurity start to sneak in, practice this mantra. The practice of knowing we are enough, and that we have enough is the key to desiring less in life and feeling more whole and happy.
- Take the time to find clarity in your life. Move and act with intention with an open heart.
- Focus on yourself and your own goals by not comparing yourself to others. Be in your body and in your own experience.
We love taking theory into practice with you. Check out our class schedule to see when you can be in community through practice during the month of April.
All nature loves an honest person.
~The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Satya, truthfulness, is the second of the five yamas outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Following ahimsa (non-violence) in the ethical and moral practices of yoga, Satya asks us to live a life of integrity in the way we think, act and speak. Satya asks us to engage with things not as wethink they are, but as they actually are. Satya asks us to move forward in our lives with integrity while keeping the principle of ahimsa in mind. When we can view the truth through the lens of compassion, we can present that truth in a way that is as non-harming as possible.
Most of us would say we’re honest people, right? If we look a little closer at our conversations with others and the things we quietly hide from others, we start to gain a more nuanced understanding of the reasons we bend the truth or don’t show our true selves to those we love.
So why don’t we always tell the truth?
Many of us have the tendency to fall back on nice instead of being real.
Think about this: would you consider yourself to be a nice person? Are you not being truthful in your life because of worry about what others might think or worry about hurting someone? We often tell small lies in an effort to not hurt feelings or to present a certain aspect of ourselves to the world. When we center ourselves in our own integrity, we can move forward from a place of a deeper expression of truthfulness. When we do this from a place of compassion and non-harming, the truth can often be a shining light. However, we must always ask ourselves whether telling the truth would cause more harm and to be mindful of what we have to say. It is better to remain silent than it is to tell a harsh or cruel truth. Is what we have to say true, useful, necessary and kind? If not, it is best to say nothing at all. Are we telling the truth and inadvertently hurting someone? Are we telling the truth in the least harmful way?
Another reason we might hesitate around telling the truth is our deep need to belong.
When our own truth goes against what it takes to belong in a community the results can cause discord within our community. For example, I have many friends who grew up within a religion only to, as they grew and could decide for themselves, understood that the religion they grew up in wasn’t correct for them and their beliefs and values any longer. Recognizing their own truth and real-ness caused them to make the often painful decision to break from these communities. For some of my friends, the sense of belonging to these communities was more important than voicing their own truth.
A magical thing can happen when we are more truthful with ourselves and others: we show up.
We show up in the moment, ready to move forward in truth and integrity, and others start to recognize this in us. It’s refreshing, and the truth begins to feel more powerful. Our time on the yoga mat helps us come into contact with our own truths in our body, and therefore helps us unpack some of the deeper stories that we tell ourselves. Constant reengagement with the process of understanding truth is important as truth is fluid. We periodically need to get a fresh perspective on what we view as truth. Our seeing is limited by our own perspective, the groups that shape us and our experience. We must constantly be willing to reexamine our views and the stories we create about our lives. Every time we get on the yoga mat we have an opportunity to understand ourselves and others a little more.
Two ideas for deeper exploration:
- Observe situations in which you are “real” versus “nice” and notice the difference between the results of the two.
- Look at ideas and values that you hold to be true and no longer serve you. You may be unconsciously holding on to things that you no longer need.
We look forward to seeing you on the mat!
Love is an action, never simply a feeling.
Greetings! As we move out of what was a very hard January for many people in Astoria, we want to celebrate the care and commitment of each and every one of you as you continue your yoga practice with us here at Watershed Wellness. Our January focus explored kindness and compassion, especially directed toward the self.
Yoga is more than just moving your body into different shapes.
The practice of yoga involves lifestyle and behavior guidelines, breathwork, meditation and what most of us are familiar with: movement practices. This month we’ll be focusing on one of the behavioral guidelines. We are beginning an exploration of the yamas and niyamas of yoga, starting with the principle of Ahimsa: non-violence.
A brief explanation of the yamas and niyamas
Yoga practitioners have always been human beings struggling and working towards being the best people that they can be. Yoga is a 5000-year-old practice that calms your mind and body and brings you peace and happiness. Early practitioners of yoga developed a list of principles to help guide them in this process. These guidelines have helped practitioners of yoga focus on leading lives that are morally and ethically correct. The list of guidelines includes the yamas and the niyamas.
The word yama in Sanskrit means “moral discipline” and niyama means “moral observance.
The 5 yamas (disciplines) are:
- Ahimsa — non-harming
- Satya — refraining from dishonesty
- Asteya — non-stealing
- Brahmacharya — wise use of sexual energy
- Aparigraha — non-possessiveness
The 5 niyamas (observances) are:
- Saucha — purity
- Santosha — contentment
- Tapas — self-discipline
- Svadhyaya — self-study
- Ishvara pranidhana — surrender to a higher source
In February, we are focusing on the first yama, ahimsa.
The yamas build upon one another with ahimsa acting as the building block for understanding all the other yamas.
Ahimsa means “avoidance of violence”.This is often interpreted as the act of not harming other beings (for example, many practitioners of yoga take this to mean that they should practice vegetarianism as an act of not harming animals).
Ahimsa can also be an act of practicing love and kindness toward ourselves and others.
This principle requires us to act from a place of love toward other beings, including ourselves. This includes non-harmful thoughts and actions. It means eradicating judgmental thoughts and negativity that can become all pervasive. It means responding to challenges that come our way with a sense of openness and love rather than shutting down and closing ourselves off from the world. It means extending the principle of charity to others when dealing with hard situations – assuming the best intentions of each other; assuming that we’re all coming from a place of love and kindness rather than from a place of harming each other.
For one day, try this: try tracking your thought processes throughout the day, and noting every time you have a negative or judgmental thought either about yourself or someone else.
Once you notice these thoughts, it’s astounding how much negativity and judgment knocks around in our thoughts every day. How can you turn these thoughts about yourself and others around to thoughts of love and kindness? When you hear that voice of negativity or judgment, replace it with something kind.
How does ahimsa show up on the yoga mat?
Ahimsa shows up when you don’t compare yourself to others in the room. It shows up when you don’t criticize your body or your practice, but rather allow yourself to be in whatever iteration of your self you are bringing to the mat that day. It shows up when you allow space for community and acceptance of everyone in the room.
UPDATE: While it seems the shutdown is over for now, we all know the impacts of stress go far beyond the ending of any given stressful event. So we are extending this offer through the end of February. 👍🏼🇺🇸❤️
Astoria is a Coast Guard city.
Further, Oregon and Washington are home to many federal workers in the sciences, in the park system and in many other important areas of American life. All of these people and their families are being impacted by the unprecedented government shutdown battle currently playing out in Washington D.C.
The shutdown is ugly, and absolutely unneeded. Fortunately, there is some beauty emerging, particularly in our community, that is helping things be a little easier on those impacted by furlough.
- A popup food bank was organized by the community and helped more than 1300 people
- Several local businesses, including Buoy Beer are organizing dinners & giving discounts to those impacted
- Individuals all over the city are contributing to GoFundMe and other donation projects
There's so much more we're missing in this brief blog post – but the outpouring of support is truly inspiring.
We want to do our part to help.
Until the shutdown ends, we are offering free classes at our movement studio to all federal employees impacted by the shutdown. Stress is one of the hidden impacts of loss of income security, and while yoga isn't going to put food on the table or help you with childcare, hopefully it provides some respite in a world that seems bent on putting burdens on those who can least afford them. All you have to do is show up.
For all of our existing WW movement studio regulars…
It's possible that class sizes will be a little big during this time, and we might end up reaching capacity during the more popular classes. We'll accommodate everyone we safely can, and ask your patience as we try to help your neighbors and friends have some time for reflection, movement and connection.
Please share with anyone you think might benefit, and thank you.
Welcome to the new year!
Like millions of other Americans, you’ve probably been thinking about changes you would like to make in your life in the new year. This time of the year inspires us to reflect on our lives. On what we’d like to change, what we can do better, what we want this year to be all about. We resolve to do better, be better, live better.
When used as an action, resolve means to decide firmly on a course of action. We might resolve to eat better, move more, or have better relationships with those you love. But what happens when life gets in the way of this resolve? When we don’t have time to make a healthy meal, to attend a class, or tend to those that we love most? The beginning of the year can be a great time of reflection and plotting a course of action, but we are often setting ourselves up for hard times and big feelings when our lives don’t support our resolutions.
Every year, it seems, it’s the same story. We start out strong with our resolutions of change in the new year and then things slip a little. Our resolutions fade into the background of our very busy lives and habit takes over. It’s easy, when this happens, to be hard on yourself. Why can’t you maintain what seems like a simple change?
What if, instead of resolving to be something or someone different, we instead could love ourselves as we are: as imperfect human beings trying to live the best lives we can in this complicated world?
By showing compassion to ourselves, we can move forward with a change not from a place of shame or lack, but rather from a strong foothold of already being a good enough person who is thoughtfully engaged in the process of self exploration. A person engaged in being the best person they can be while knowing there will be mistakes made and lessons learned. A person who understands that these mistakes and lessons are all part of being better humans.
Perhaps, in the new year, hard headed resolve can be replaced with a sense of self-compassion as we bumble through this beautiful life.
A life where we do the work of continually showing up and being in the company of others working through the same struggles. A life where we seek good company in a non-judgmental environment that can help foster compassion not only for ourselves, but for everyone.
One of the benefits of yoga is that it provides the space to understand ourselves more deeply, outside and in. The act of coming to class with a clear intention of compassion for yourself as you walk through this hard and beautiful life can be revolutionary. Throughout our January yoga classes, we'll be exploring poses and themes that inspire compassion, that allow for self reflection and help us dive a little further into our best selves. There is something really powerful about practicing this sort of self-compassion with other like-minded individuals in good community. We hope you'll join us as we move forward into this new year.
Happy December! Welcome to the darkest time of the year if you're with us in the Northern Hemisphere. December brings with it many celebrations, opportunities for light within the darkness, and (hopefully!) time for reflection and quiet. To celebrate the deep dark things in life our monthly focus at Watershed Wellness will be on the core: finding strength and stability from within to support on the outside.
When you think about core, you might imagine someone with six pack abs. Many commonly think only of the superficial abdominal muscles as being the whole of the core. A broader, more realistic definition of the core would include discussion of up to 40 different muscles. Your abdominals certainly play a role in core stability, but the deeper muscles provide a stability that is essential.
The core muscles are the structures of the body that tie everything together in movement.
They help you sit up straight without pain. They help mitigate lower back pain. They help you find better balance in your body.
The muscles that stabilize your core include:
- abdominal muscles: rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominus
- the muscles that help to stabilize your shoulder blades
- pelvic floor muscles
- the muscles that support your spine
- the diaphragm
- your back muscles
Functions of the core include:
- stabilizing the legs and hips
- supporting the lower spine from the front of the body
- surrounding and shaping the abdomen
- stabilizing the chest with breath
- balancing and stabilizing your neck and head
When your core muscles aren’t working properly the function of the core (stabilizing) is transferred to other parts of the body. This can create less elegance and grace in movement and function, and more strain to the joints that can, over time, lead to injury and degeneration.
It is also worth mentioning that the word “core” can elicit mixed feelings for many people.
It’s an area that many of us want to ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist because we think it’s too big, too weak, or flawed in some way. It’s also one of the most vulnerable spots of the body, housing the abdominal organs. It is our hope that by having an added understanding of what this area of our bodies is comprised of, and how it functions for us, we can have a better relationship with it.
Throughout December we’ll be focusing on these deeper muscles intending to create strength and warmth from within.
We’ll work with poses that are as simple as cat/cow to as complex as handstand and arm balances. Bringing awareness to these often sleepy areas of the body you’ll leave December feeling more stable, graceful, warm and supported from the inside out.
Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? Mary Oliver
Inhale. Exhale. These actions are instructed many times during a yoga class. Inhale your arms up and overhead, exhale and fold forward. Inhale lift your heart, exhale allow your hips to sink toward the floor. The inherent nature of the inhale is to lift, to rise, to expand, while the exhale allows for drawing in, deepening, and release.
For the month of November, we will be exploring how the breath changes our practice. We’ll be looking at why the breath is important in a yoga practice, the anatomy of the breathing body, Pranayama, and how the shape of the body can change the shape of the breath.
Why does the breath even matter in a yoga practice?
Why do we link the inhale and exhale to certain movements? Breathing usually operates at the edge of our awareness. On average, we take about 16 breaths per minute. This correlates to 960 breaths per hour, 23,040 breaths a day. How many of those breaths are conscious breaths? Probably not many. Yoga offers the opportunity to create attention and intention around the breath. In fact, there is opportunity in yogic breathing to control the breath in various ways. Similar to a seated meditation practice, tuning into the breath can provide something to focus on during your movement practice.
In every yoga practice, breathing is closely attended to. Vinyasa yoga, specifically, links movement with breath. The word vinyasa means “to place in a special way”. A vinyasa specific class focuses on linking movement with the breath. Attuning to the breath can not only be a great link between poses and a focal point but also a way to warm the body to prepare for movement. Looking at the anatomy of the breath can help to illuminate how the breath can affect movement.
Anatomy of the Breath
The main goal in breathing is to move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the body. Every time you take a breath, air is pulled backward into the nose past the hard and soft palates. It then makes a 90-degree turn into the pharynx, a funnel-shaped region. From the pharynx, the breath moves into the larynx (where the vocal cords are housed). After the larynx, the breath passes through the trachea, the right and left bronchi and then into the two lungs. The lungs divide into smaller and smaller segments (bronchopulmonary segments, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, bronchioles, collectively called the bronchial tree, and eventually into the tiny alveoli) and your breath is processed and assimilated into your body.
Your lungs are mostly comprised of air: 50% after full exhalation, and 80% with a full inhalation.
This inhalation and exhalation changes the shape of your thoracic and abdominal cavities. The thoracic cavity houses the heart and lungs, and the abdominal cavity contains the stomach, liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, small and large intestines, kidneys, reproductive organs, and bladder. These two cavities are separated by a muscle called the diaphragm.
There are a few muscles in the body that enable a full and deep inhale, and the diaphragm is at the top of that list. This muscle creates the barrier between the thoracic and the abdominal cavities. The upper fibers attach to the circumference of the lower rib cage. The diaphragm attaches to the front of the lumbar vertebra L1, L2, and L3 (this is a simplified explanation of both the upper and lower attachments).
The diaphragm muscle is capable of creating a three dimensional shape change in the thoracic cavity. The shape of the diaphragm can be likened to a parachute or jellyfish. With a deep breath in, the lungs push the diaphragm down and make the belly push out. With a deep exhalation, the lungs deflate, the diaphragm returns to its domelike shape, and the pressure on the abdominal cavity from the inhalation is released.
Try this, take a deep breath and notice how the shape of your rib cage changes.
Notice how your belly changes. The inhalation will change the volume of the thoracic cavity in three directions: top to bottom, side to side and front to back. Your ribs are designed to expand and contract with the inhale and the exhale. The lungs take up more room in your body as you increase the volume in the thoracic cavity, therefore pushing your belly out. You can also use the musculature of your belly (your abdominals) to create some control in this area. By doing so you can force the air more into the rib cage, allowing the ribs to lift and expand.
A quick note here of a few relevant accessory breathing muscles (the other muscles that participate in breathing). These muscles are:
- Internal and external intercostals
- internal and external obliques
- Transverse abdominis
- Pectoralis minor
- Serratus Posterior
Pranayama is loosely defined as the conscious awareness of the breath. Prana = life force, and ayama = extension. There are many different types of breathwork that can be practiced in a yoga class. We’ll bring up just a few that are great for those just beginning these practices. It is noted in most of the texts that discuss pranayama that these practices should be done with attention and that controlling the breath can have profound impacts on your body.
This is the most basic of the breathing techniques and is accessible to all practitioners. Ujjayi pranayama involves breathing through the nose with a very slight narrowing at the epiglottis. This breath produces a gentle wavelike, or whisper sound, originating from the constriction at the back of the throat. To find this constriction, imagine that you are sucking air as if through a straw at the back of your throat. Ujjayi breathing is said to warm the breath as it flows through the nose, thus warming the body.
Equal breath. Sama means same, and vritti means fluctuations of the mind. The hope of sama vritti pranayama is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. This breath pattern is practiced by making the inhale and exhale equal in length.
Alternate nostril breathing. This is practiced by closing the right nostril with your thumb, exhaling and inhaling once through the left nostril and then closing the left nostril with the ring finger, exhaling and inhaling once through the right nostril. You then move back to closing the right nostril with the thumb and start the cycle over. This practice can center the attention and calm the mind. It also helps to balance the nervous system.
There are many different types of pranayama, and various forms will be practiced throughout the month of November at the studio. Please note that if any of these practices cause anxiety, it’s always ok to come back to your normal breathing pattern and just focus on the inhale and exhale.
“Breathing has the dual nature of being both voluntary and autonomic, which is why the breath illuminates the eternal inquiry about what we can control or change and what we cannot.” Leslie Kaminoff in Yoga Anatomy
Breath in action
The shape of the breath can change with the shape of your body. By understanding the anatomy, as discussed above, we can start to look at how moving into certain yoga postures can change where our breath fills our body. For example, if we inhale and come into a backbend, our spine naturally extends and the breath in can help to support the heart opening and chest breathing that in inherent in backbends. The accessory breathing muscles of the back kick in as we breathe deeply to support the shape. The breath is forced into the upper chest region. Try this in a cobra shape. The feedback of the floor in this belly down backbend will help you see how the breath gets filtered more into the chest.
In twists, something similar happens. We constrict both the thoracic and abdominal cavities as we revolve around our spines. You might notice that you can lengthen more into your twist with the inhale, and then as you empty your lungs find a deeper twist with the exhale. You might also find that you have more constriction in either your belly or your chest, depending on the twist.
Regardless of what your practice looks like, paying close attention to the breath can deepen and sweeten any yoga asana practice.
The breath can be the doorway into a deeper experience of your body and your internal spaces. The breath can help to identify and release the tensions of the body and help to attain equilibrium. Keeping the lungs open can be an especially hard thing to do this time of year as we start to get our winter colds. We'll be exploring these concepts from different angles, including Chinese medicine, in upcoming articles.
If you’re interested in learning more about the breath and pranayama in meditation and movement, I encourage you to come to any class in November to explore these practices in your own body.
If you’d like further reading on the breath, I utilized the following texts in this article:
- Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews
- Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter