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
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