Breath awareness and training for a balanced, healthy lifestyle and a deeper yoga and meditation practice.
By Rolf Sovik
Breath training is an integral part of yoga as well as a means of creating a more balanced, healthy lifestyle. Practicing relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing is refreshing and restful, and creates a sense of well-being. It calms the nervous system, helps prevent psychosomatic disturbances, including panic episodes, and centers attention. Because we are always breathing, breath awareness is a self-management tool that is useful even during the busiest times of the day.
For students of yoga, breath training is an indispensable preparation for the proper performance of asana and pranayama and for deepening meditation. It involves learning to recognize the sensations that accompany diaphragmatic breathing and gradually becoming accustomed to breathing deeply and smoothly.
Anatomy of the Breath
It surprises many people to learn that the lungs are not muscles. Without help, they cannot move air in and out of the body. This fact lies at the heart of breath instruction: Questions about how to breathe are really questions about which muscles to use in order to expand the lungs and draw air into them.
We have choices regarding the muscles we use for breathing. The muscles of the neck and upper torso, by themselves, have a relatively minor effect on breathing. Breathing with these muscles alone results in bringing in air in small amounts. The isolated use of these muscles for breathing, called clavicular breathing, is most commonly seen in people who have lung illnesses, such as emphysema, that limit their ability to draw a deep breath.
The bands of muscle (the intercostal muscles) that lie between the ribs account for about 20% of normal breathing. Because these muscles surround the lungs, it might seem natural to breathe with them. In fact, after strenuous exercise nothing is more satisfying than to breathe deeply with the mouth open and the chest heaving. But in normal circumstances, chest or thoracic breathing is considerably less dramatic—the ribs simply rise and fall with the inhalation and the exhalation.
Although there is a certain logic to breathing with the chest muscles—that is where the lungs are, after all—it is not helpful to use these muscles as the primary tool for everyday breathing. Breathing primarily with the chest muscles makes breathing too labored. The effect is to arouse the sympathetic nervous system and to maintain levels of tension that sap energy and dramatically increase your susceptibility to emotional disturbances. Overusing the chest muscles for breathing is a subtle but major cause of physical and emotional distress.
Elements of both clavicular and thoracic breathing are found in normal breathing, but the muscle naturally intended for expanding the lungs is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that lies horizontally inside the torso, dividing it into two separate chambers—the chest (thoracic) cavity and the abdominal/pelvic cavity. The chest contains the lungs and heart; the lower chamber of the torso contains the organs of digestion, assimilation, elimination, and reproduction.
When the muscle fibers of the diaphragm contract they pull the top of the diaphragm down. This has two noticeable results. The lungs expand as they fill with air and, at the same time, the abdominal organs are compressed downward, pressing out against the abdomen.
Exhalation is caused by a different mechanism. When the muscle fibers of the diaphragm relax, the natural elasticity of the lungs and rib cage causes the lungs to shrink, and air flows out of the lungs. Muscle contraction is only minimally involved in this motion. This is why you exhale as you sink into your favorite chair. Exhalation is relaxing.
The actual look and feel of diaphragmatic breathing varies, depending upon one’s body posture. Nonetheless, the basic principles of breathing remain constant. Contracting the diaphragm causes the lungs to expand and air to flow in. Relaxing the diaphragm allows the rib cage and lungs to contract and air to flow out.
The aim of breath training is not to become obsessed with these mechanics, but to use them as a framework for feeling the nurturing qualities of good breathing. With just a small investment of time, you can lay the groundwork for good health and an advancing yoga practice.
Breathing in Crocodile Pose
The best posture for sensing the flow of the breath is the crocodile pose. When you are lying prone on your stomach, with arms folded at about a 45 degree angle above your shoulders, your body will naturally begin to breathe diaphragmatically. Use the crocodile pose to counteract the normal abdominal tension that arises whenever you are nervous. It will automatically get you started toward a more natural breathing style. Even advanced students find tension in the abdomen by the end of the day. The crocodile pose offers a chance to unblock the breath and release pent-up tension.
There are several versions of the crocodile pose, each helpful and each designed to accommodate different body types and different levels of flexibility. You may turn your feet in, with legs resting relatively close together, or turn them out, separating the legs until the inner thighs rest comfortably on the floor. Rest your forehead on your folded forearms, elevating the upper chest slightly off of the floor. If your shoulders or arms are uncomfortable, you may prop your upper body with a cushion or a blanket (drape your chin over the cushion). You may also widen the elbows and partially open the forearms allowing the hands to separate. In all cases, the abdomen rests on the floor.
As you rest in the pose, relax your breathing and begin to observe the movements of your body. There are three main observation points: the abdomen, sides of the rib cage, and the lower back. Practice the following exercise to bring each of them to awareness.
- First, feel the ceaseless movement of your breath as it flows out and in. The breath will find it’s own pace, and even if you believe the speed to be too fast or too slow, you don’t need to control it, simply let your body breathe.
- Now bring your awareness to your abdomen and feel how it presses against the floor as you inhale and recedes (although remaining in contact with the floor) as you exhale. Relax the muscles in your belly, and let these movements of the abdomen become deep and soothing.
- Now shift your attention to the sides of the rib cage. You’ll find that the low ribs expand laterally with the inhalation and contract with the exhalation. The ribcage expands as the diaphragm contracts, and the ribs return inward as the diaphragm relaxes.
- Finally, shift your attention to your lower back. Notice that as you inhale, the back rises, and as you exhale, the back falls. Soften your back muscles and allow the breath to flow without resistance. This is a particularly relaxing sensation, and you may find that it helps relieve lower back tension that is otherwise difficult to release.
- To deepen the breath even further, you might wish to try the following experiment. At the end of the exhalation, breathe out a little more than usual by continuing to press the abdomen toward the spine. Then, as you slowly inhale, soften the muscles of the lower back and abdomen, and let the back rise and expand. You may feel as if the lower back is being stretched by the deep inhalation. Repeat the extra exhalation and the expanded inhalation for three to five breaths, until you become accustomed to the feeling of the deep inhalation. Then return to your normal exhalation—but continue to let the lower back expand as you inhale. Your breath will feel slower and deeper.
- Remain resting in crocodile pose for a total of seven to ten minutes. Feel the breath around the entire periphery of your midsection—front, sides, and back. Your breathing will become extremely relaxed. When you are refreshed, come out of the posture slowly, creating a smooth transition back to normal breathing.
Breathing in Relaxation Pose
A simple version of diaphragmatic breathing is accomplished in shavasana (relaxation pose). In this posture, the navel region rises with each inhalation and falls with each exhalation. To experience this, try the following exercise:
- Lie on your back on a flat carpeted surface. Support your head and neck with a thin cushion.
- Bring your awareness to your breath and feel the continuous flow of exhalations and inhalations.
- Soften the rib cage and it will become almost completely motionless (of course, if you breathe more deeply, you can make the ribcage move, but this takes more effort and misses the point of the exercise).
- Next, explore the respiratory movements further by raising your arms to the carpet over your head. This will accentuate the rise and fall of the abdomen.
- Finally, return your arms to your sides and observe your breathing for a number of minutes, allowing your body to relax.
Sitting Up to Breathe
When you sit erect, the movements of breathing will no longer feel the same as when you were lying on your back. Breathing is still diaphragmatic, but the vertical axis of the body changes the effect of the diaphragm’s action on the lower torso. You can easily feel this.
- Sit erect in any seated pose (sitting on a flat seated chair will do fine).
- Rest your hands in your lap. Close your eyes and turn your attention to the flow of exhalations and inhalations.
- Soften the abdomen and sides of the rib cage. Let the muscles of the back support your posture with only modest muscle tone.
- Now notice how, if you let it, your breathing results in a quiet expansion of the sides of the rib cage. The front wall of the abdomen also expands, but the movement is much less than it was in shavasana.
- Continue observing the breath until it’s pace and depth feel absolutely comfortable and relaxed (your breathing will be a little faster and will feel higher in the torso than it does lying down). As you observe each inhalation and exhalation, let your mind relax.
The rewards of this training are quite remarkable. You will find that you have a tool to maintain your equilibrium in situations where you used to become tense and uncomfortable. Your everyday level of internal tension will lessen, allowing you to move your body and concentrate your mind with greater ease. As you continue on the path of yoga, diaphragmatic breathing will serve as a foundation for many other practices. And when fears seem overwhelming in the course of daily living, you will have an internal friend to comfort your mind. All in all, as you improve the quality of your breathing, you will improve the quality of your life.
Rolf Sovik, Psy.D., holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. His doctoral project examined the effects of breath training in the treatment of panic disorder. He is the president of the Himalayan Institute, and serves as the director of the Institute’s branch center in Buffalo, New York.