The last time I wrote about my love affair with yoga, I talked a lot about breathing. In my earlier days of teaching fitness classes, I scoffed at the idea of "practicing" breathing.
How ridiculous is that? Who sits around and practices how to breathe? The truth is, I do.
Pranayama is the Sanskrit term for the practice of breathing. It is one of the eight limbs, or different ways to practice, Hatha Yoga. And we thought yoga was just stretching!
Whatever path we take, breathing is vital --our lives literally depend upon it. Oxygen fuels countless functions within our body and the carbon dioxide we exhale releases toxins we need to expel. Most of the time we don't even think about this mandatory function, which is why we think it is ridiculous to remind ourselves to breathe. But breathing is not merely an automatic function, it is life. This is why yogis place so much importance on it.
There are many ways to practice breathing but in my opinion the most important technique for everyday people is what I call a "yoga breath" or a three-part breath. To start, it's helpful to break a breath down into three parts. Once you understand these parts, linking them together creates a calming breath that naturally lowers your blood pressure, brings you into the moment, clarifies your thinking, increases your lung capacity and prevents you from locking your children out of the house until they're 30.
First, place your hands on your stomach below your belly button. Try to breath so deeply that your hands on your midsection rise and fall with your breath while your chest remains still.
This is called diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle shaped like a dome that, among other things, assists the expansion of the lower rib cage for deep breathing. Opera singers have unbelievably strong diaphragms because it is the muscular platform from which they sing.
If you struggle getting your breath deep and you find your chest rising and falling instead of your abdomen, try breathing through your mouth like you are sucking through a straw.
This technique naturally helps you draw the breath down into the diaphragm. Once you get the hang of it, close your mouth and try breathing through your nose. Yogis love breathing through the nose because it warms and filters the air coming into the lungs. It's your very own HEPA filter.
Second, place your hands on the sides of your rib cage underneath your armpits. Take a big breath right into the lungs. We are used to this breath and my not notice anything special about it. But, while your hands are on your ribs, notice how the ribs expand away from each other and how you aren't just breathing but also stretching.
If you are a shallow breather, like most people, the intercostal muscles between your ribs probably don't get stretched out that often. This is a great breath to do while sitting at a desk. Spending time hunched over in front of a computer or a book shortens these muscles and if they aren't stretched, this shortness can create a hunch in your posture. Also, pay attention to the backside of your ribs. We always think of breathing into our ribs in front, but breathing deeply into the lungs helps us stretch the intercostals in our back, too.
Finally, place your hands on your collarbone and take in very shallow breaths just into the chest. We usually only breathe like this when we are exercising hard or if we are panicked. Think of teenagers running through the forest during a horror film -- you know, gasping and panting. Notice how breathing like this can make you feel panicked even if you're just sitting on the couch at home.
Now, to negate the panicked feeling, we string these three breaths together to create a yoga breath.
Begin with the diaphragmatic breathing by filling the belly with oxygen, letting it expand up into the ribcage, feeling it rising into the lungs, and finally up into the chest. Then exhale by emptying the belly, releasing the lungs and lowering the chest. The inhalation should be the same length of time as the exhalation. Just count 1-2-3-4 inhale, 1-2-3-4 exhale.
Let the breath wash over you like a wave. Every inhalation is an opportunity to draw in healthy oxygen and every exhalation is a chance to rid the body of toxins. In my classes I remind people to inhale positive energy and exhale stress. It's amazing how this little exercise can change your whole day and eventually, with practice, how you choose to handle stress in your daily life.
Nevertheless, even as a yoga instructor, I constantly need reminders to breath. Just the other day my 4-year-old son was on the verge of some serious consequences when in an enlightened moment of self-preservation he blurted out, "MOMMY, take a BIG yoga breath!"
I'll be darned if I didn't. And for all my son's quick thinking and by the power of a good yoga breath, my son is still able to breathe himself.
Rebecca Thorpe is a group fitness and Yoga Alliance-certified instructor. She teaches classes at Whitman College and the Walla Walla YMCA.