On the beach, close to the surf, the waves can be heard as they crash upon the shore and slowly creep up the sand as the sound slowly fades until it reaches a point where the momentum of the movement is lost. Then there is what seems to be a moment of calmness before it makes the tranquil trickling sound as it retreats back towards the source from where it came. And then again… and again… IF you find a quiet calm space, close your eyes and visualize this process, you will see that your breath is not that different from the dance of the ocean.
I’m very fond of pranayama and even know a couple of yogis who have a breathing practice that is as diligent as my asana practice. The topic of breath sounds seemingly extremely simple since it’s an autonomous act and it’s easy to forget about the dynamics of it. As a yoga practitioner, you will find benefit in developing an acute perception of your breath on and off the mat. We’re often reminded as students to check in with our breath at the beginning of class. We may be led through some light three part breathing exercises to get our attention turned inward instead of being focused on the events that preceded our “me time” on our mats. Also, occasionally throughout the duration of a yoga class, we’re reminded to breathe. Some instructors even insist on one breath one move and invite you to take a child’s pose if you need to get your breath to slow down.
So what’s the point here? Why the controlled breathing?
Why does one need breath perception in yoga? Breath perception is a multifaceted practice that has several avenues of benefits. The part that is most interesting to me is that through awareness of breath in yoga, combined with muscle control and smiling while squelching the ego’s voice that’s screaming “OMG! Why are you doing this to me?” there’s the chance for me to see and experience duality from the perspective of my true nature, which I’ve been told is nothing but pure awareness… but that’s just me. We all do things for different reasons. So, we’ll stay grounded to science and reason in this article.
As we all know, the science behind breath is to distribute oxygen to the body. Living creatures need oxygen to survive. The alveoli in our lungs absorb the oxygen in the air where its picked up by hemoglobin in the blood and distributed to the muscles, organs and brain. An interesting thing to note is that the brain is responsible for consuming 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. The physical mechanics behind breathing is also an interesting topic. The thoracic diaphragm is most commonly thought to be the sole mechanism behind breathing, but the body actually utilizes three diaphragms (pelvic diaphragm, thoracic diaphragm and vocal diaphragm) for proper breathing. All three work in congruence to accommodate the breath. The thoracic diaphragm moves downward and compresses the soft contents of the belly and draws air into the lungs by creating an atmospheric pressure differential. The pelvic diaphragm supports the organs and billows down and broadens as we inhale, when we exhale it retracts upwards and narrows. The vocal diaphragm between the trachea and the base of the tongue regulates the pressure of the volume of air in the lungs and the speed at which it is exhaled.
Why the science lesson?
Now we’re more aware of what is happening with each breath, how the breath is taken in and the reasoning behind a proper breathing. If we’re breathing just enough to suffice, then how would we know we can breathe better? Being able to develop a breath perception relies on noticing anything that affects your breathing as well as knowing the full capability of the body’s breathing process. When you inhale fully, not only does the pelvic floor move down to accommodate the mass of air you are taking in, but the spine lengthens upwards, the intercostal muscles allow the ribs to move out and upwards toward the chin. The lower ribs move outward from the sternum and the shoulder girdle broadens.
When you’re accompanied with the knowledge of the mechanics of proper breathing is, and you have practice at being aware of the quality of your breath at all times, you will notice when breath is affected by things such as stress, emotions, fatigue, etc.
How is breathing affected?
You emotions can affect your breath, and likewise, you breath can affect your emotions. As you become more aware of your breath, (and by this context, I simply mean to be aware that you are breathing) you can begin to experiment with controlling the breath. Often we find ourselves in stressful or fearful situations and the last thing we think about is how we are breathing. So, as you begin to constantly check in on your breath while off the mat, you will get better at simply remembering that you’re breathing and knowing you have the option to accommodate the breathing process. This is the first step. Sounds simple enough, right?
Stress restricts breath and restriction of the breath is a bad thing in numerous ways. If we don’t inhale deep enough, we don’t get enough oxygen to serve the body’s needs, and if we don’t exhale fully, the expulsion of stale air and carbon dioxide is not sufficient. Aside from stress, bad posture is another enemy of healthy breathing. Many of us are sitting at desks all day or commuting to or from work more than we would like, and these are times when our breath is greatly restricted. So as you begin to check in with your breath often, you may realize that you need to sit up straight or adjust your chair or simply release the tension in your neck and shoulders and try to breathe a little more freely and possibly deeper.
You may find that you need to adjust your attire as well. Many fashionable clothes we wear are horrible for proper breathing such as tight clothes, belts and neck ties to name a few. Even walking in high heels can affect breath by causing more tension in the lower back muscles to maintain balance and thus prevent a full inhale while walking.
While you’re investing so much effort on the mat in proper breathing, be sure to reap the benefits off the mat as well. Check in often with your breath. I utilize an app for my smartphone called Mindfulness Bell, which can be set to chime at intervals as a reminder to take a full 3-part breath. (anything more than once an hour will drive your co-workers insane.) Try taking a full breath before you respond to an uncomfortable question. It’s a long enough awkward pause, for someone to re-word what they just asked you and gives you time to respond appropriatley with an oxygen fueled response. Take mental note of your breath when you are around certain people. Your yoga instructor, your boss, your spouse, your children or even your pets may manifest different breathing patterns. Play, experiment, and discover your breath. It’s the least-considered, most-precious commodity we have.