Keep It Flowing

January 13, 2012

Columbus, MS, Lifestyles

A few days ago, I had to chuckle at a show I was watching, where the male character was persuading the female to ditch her Yoga class that had been bought for her as a gift. In an effort to make out to her friend that she had actually attended, he told her to tell her friend: “My back hurts a bit, but I’ve never breathed like that in my life.” (Burn Notice, USA Network). I chuckled, because for a start, your back should not be hurting after class, but also because most people don’t associate breathing with Yoga. It is perceived to be ‘all about the stretching, being very flexible and Downward-facing Dog!’

Although stretching, flexibility and the pose do have their place in Western Yoga, you will never reap the full benefits unless you learn to combine the physical movements of a pose (or Asana) with the subtle art of breathing or Pranayama.

Pranayama means ‘breathing exercises’ or ‘controlling the breath’. Prana by itself means ‘life force’ or ‘energy’. It is about the intake of vital life-giving nourishment and the expulsion of toxins and waste. Food and water are also considered to be prana.

The way we breathe has significance on our lives. Often, people pickup bad breathing techniques as they age, much like a driver will pick up bad driving habits after they pass their test. This is something they learn and not something we are born with. If you watch an infant, you can see the steady rise and fall of their chest and abdomen; however, many adults don’t breathe this way. They have invariantly learned to contract muscles, such as the intercostals, the diaphragm, and the abdominal muscles as they inhale — restricting the influx of air. Then in return, they slump during the exhalation, not fully ridding the lungs of used breath. By breathing this way, we don’t allow our body to fully expand to gain the maximum capacity of a much richer, greater breath.

How we breathe and what is going on inside us are explained in simple anatomy. As we inhale, air pressure forces air through our trachea and bronchioles into the lungs. The intercostal muscles relax, allowing the rib cage to expand. The diaphragm expands, pushing into the upper abdomen, allowing the maximum capacity for the influx of air. The air is then filtered through the alveoli into the red blood cells. These blood cells travel through capillaries and veins to the heart, where it is then pushed through the arteries and the vascular system to the rest of the body. In return, the deoxygenated blood cells return to the heart, where it is then pushed back to the lungs through an artery. Used air is then exhaled by being pushed out of the body the same way it came in. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles contract to squeeze the air back up and out.

In Yoga, we learn correct breathing techniques and breathing exercises that help strengthen the respiratory system. This then helps increase the oxygenated blood that is sent to every cell of the body. The benefits of this are extensive. By strengthening our respiratory system we strengthen our cardiovascular system; this helps us ward off illnesses, such as asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, stress, depression and anxiety. We nourish every system of the body down to a cellular level, enhancing physical and mental performance, the ability to heal and renew, and calming or energizing the body.

Yoga not only has physical health benefits but also mental health benefits. There is a direct link of breath with the mind. Deepak Chopra writes, “When your mind is quiet and centered, so is your breath. When your mind is turbulent your breathing becomes distorted.” (Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yogapage 41 (2004). The same can be said vice versa! Simple breathing techniques with a relaxing Asana (pose) can truly help you through times of turbulence.

Find yourself a safe, quiet place to sit where you won’t be disturbed for about five minutes. Get yourself comfortably sitting with a tall straight spine. This can be on a sofa, the floor, a bed — even in the bath, if that is your quiet place. Cross your legs or stretch them out in front of you, and place your hands softly on your knees. Palms down creates a more grounding experience, whereas palms up is more uplifting.

Close your eyes and start to concentrate on your breathing — just notice how the air comes in and out. Now start controlling the breath by breathing through the nose, allowing your body to expand as you inhale. On the exhale, contract your abdominals and completely expel all of the air.

Still breathing through the nose, start extending the breaths by counting to 4 as you inhale. Hold your breath for 4 counts, then exhale for six; hold your breath for 4 and start your inhales again. Repeat the full exercise between five to ten times.

The reason for extending our breathing this way is because it helps us focus and calm the mind. Our blood pressure starts to level out, our muscles relax, and — with practice — our stress eases up. This not only helps us with dealings in our day-to-day lives, but it also supports the overall bodily functions and health, including our ability to fight disease and illness and is a better quality to our experience when exercising.


Kate Spencer

Kate Spencer is a certified yoga instructor from Cambridge, England, who came across the pond with the USAF/CAFB.


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