Pranayama: Introduction to One's Breath
From ancient times we have understood that breath is vital to life. Root languages often utilize the same word for breath as they do for spirit, life force, even God. While normal, unconscious breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the breath is readily accessible to conscious control and can therefore provide a link between our conscious mind and our anatomy, physiology, deeper emotional states, and our deepest spiritual potential. It is this unique quality that makes #breath the primary concern in #yoga tradition.
A few years ago, when I finally prioritized my own health and wellness, I not only dove into yoga, but I worked specifically on identifying why I had a normal body fat and high muscle mass yet also had a protruding abdomen resembling a pregnant momma in her third trimester. Cortisol was certainly to blame as years as a #midwife had taken its toll, on top of a fairly traumatic childhood. My visceral fat was high, but still, why was my effort not affecting my abdomen whatsoever even as my visceral fat decreased?
What I discovered was that I had a wide diastasis recti separation - to the tune of six centimeters of separation. This motivated a deep dive into the literature. I learned that my years of intense exercise in my teens and early twenties set the stage and my six subsequent pregnancies wreaked havoc on my abdominal wall. As I would recommend for my clients, I initiated physical therapy and joined various online programs. I even created my own from all that I had learned. A critical concept I hadn't expected though, was recognizing how dysfunctional my breath was and how this was negatively contributing to my posture, my abdominal tone, and even my perineal tone. Who would have thought, right?
Structural Aspects of Breath
The #vinyasa flow is designed to move from pose to pose with the breath initiating prior to the movement, evoking a natural movement in the spine, coordinating breath to movement. When mindful of the breath, one can move deeper into the pose or further to extend the pose, maximizing the stretch. Yogis will often say, "First feel the current, then swim with it."
What I don't think many realize is that when one inhales and the diaphragm contracts, the ribs elevate, the diaphragm pulls downward, air enters the lungs and if you sit and pay attention to this, you'll find your perineum also relaxes. When you exhale that air, the perineum will pull up and contract so when breathing, deeply, we are quite literally toning our perineal muscles. This action stabilizes the pelvic-lumbar relationship, creates more structural stability, helps in the flattening of the lumbar lordosis, and, when there is contraction of all the muscles, it also supports the organs of the pelvis and lower abdomen.
There is a bit of a paradox here in that as the structure moves upward on the inhale, the attention moves downward - we become more #grounded when we follow the breath. As the structure moves downward with the exhale, the attention then moves upward. Let me explain another way as this is a confusing concept but an important one. On the inhale, the ribs are elevated and the spine extends upward, but the diaphragm and the attention move downward with the breath as if flows down into the lungs; and on exhale, the ribs drop downward, but the diaphragm and the attention moves upward with the breath as if lows up and out of the body. While I now focus a great deal on my perineal movement and pulling my abdomen into my spine on the air exchange, the main attention in asana practice is really on the movement of the spine through the breath. This brings our attention move into the movement, consciously, rather than mechanically.
Breath & Posture
Our #posture develops from the inside out and instead of focusing on the external form of the posture, we begin to feel from the inside how the body is responding to the movement that is taking place. This is only but one physiologic advantage of breathing effectively. Consider those who are anxious and breathe more shallow. They aren't acquiring all these physiologic advantages - optimal posture, effective oxygenation, grounding, toned core and perineum.
Conscious use of inhale in asana practice should enhance this natural process, and all of the following movements, when linked to inhale, are designed for this purpose: raising the arms, expanding the chest, arching the back, moving into backward bends and extension postures, and straightening of the spine from a forward bend, a twist, or a lateral position.
When we participate in yoga classes, the newness of each flow causes us to offer our full attention. This prevents us from zoning out and performing more mechanically. Changing the practice helps keep it alive, awakens new interest, keeps familiarity from leading to inattention, and helps us stay present throughout the process. We have to really focus on our breath as we navigate each unfamiliar flow and ultimately, this is meditative. It helps us step away for a moment, from our worries and responsibilities.
Try shifting your attention for an interesting practice in how our mindfulness with our breath can change the asana stretch and even posture in surprising ways. Try moving into and out of Parsvottanasana (pyramid pose) four times on each site, but on the first repetition, keep the attention on the back heel. The second time, focus on the abdomen. The third time, then on the hands, and for the fourth, keep the attention on all three points at the same time. Notice how each time, the effects of the movement shift.
If you alter this exercise to another level, you could try placing your attention on a quality, such as kindness and hold that in your thoughts. Notice how this impacts your practice, maybe softening it and deepening it. Allow yourself to sincerely connect to the mysterious source of life itself, and hold that in your heart. Notice a sort of prayer that may result from your focus.
Honor Where You are At
Keep in mind though that we won't always progress or even meet our prior efforts on the mat. Some mornings we may wake up a bit stiffer than others. We may have less energy or an upset stomach. Adapting our practice allows us to be cognizant of our current state of health and honor that, identify our needs and prioritize, even love ourselves.
Many times on the mat, I'll identify a sore area or sensation and for the first time really register it as something to pay attention. I find as a #practitioner, many times when I am questioning clients about their symptoms, when they first perceived it but they really have no idea. When I ask about bruises, they are also unsure when these first presented. This is typical for those who are very #disembodied - for those who do not prioritize their own needs. Working yourself on the mat, allowing that time on a regular basis allows you to check in with yourself and evaluate if you are not just cognizant of your needs, but honoring them.
Beyond adapting and managing day-to-day challenges, it is essential that we respect any problematic conditions. Common aches and pains, chronic disease, and emotional health can be therapeutically addressed through yoga. We adapt to our needs as we recognize them which is the only way to optimal wellness. Consider that when doing a seated forward fold, if our hips are very tight, elevating our buttock in a seated forward bend will facilitate the forward rotation of our pelvis and thus help us stretch our backs. If however, our hips are very loose, elevating our heels in a seated forward bend will inhibit the forward rotation of our pelvis and thus helps us stretch our lower back. This is the path towards becoming a master yogi, not how flexible you become.
Yoga really is for everyone. It is about far more than bendy, stretchy, flexible poses. It is about learning yourself and optimizing who you are - mentally, physically, emotionally, and physically. It is about identifying your authenticity. Join us in our new Carmel location whether you are new or experienced in yoga, whether you are fit or restoring your health. We will meet you where you are at and help you honor yourself on the mat.