One of the biggest things I learned coming to yoga was how to breathe. I didn't realize that I would spend my entire day (except if I worked out and got out of breath) just breathing in my nose. I rarely breathed deeply enough to move it through to my belly. I didn't even know it was a problem. I just figured you breathe the way you breathe!
Breath training is a really important practice. The diaphragm is the muscle that controls breathing. It's located under the lungs but just above the abdomen. When we breathe shallowly, the diaphragm doesn't get to do much work. On the other hand, breathing deeply is like a workout for the diaphragm. It tones and gets stronger to let us have more control over our breath.
In yoga, we want to gain better control over our breath because it's the gateway to controlling our pranic flow. If you need a less woo-woo reason, here's this: diaphragmatic breathing (belly breaths) affect our nervous system too. Six minutes of belly breathing can completely reset the stress response in your body.
In our way of living nowadays, many of us live for extended periods of time with our nervous system in stress mode. Stress mode is only meant to be a short-term solution to a danger or threat, but our body can't tell the difference between a nasty email that got us all fired up and a threat to safety. Those of us with a naturally shorter fuse can use some breath training to help the nervous system settle itself back down.
To practice diaphragmatic breath
1. start lying on your back.
2. place a hand on your belly
3. breathe so that each breath in causes your belly to rise up
4. notice how the exhalation causes the belly to fall
5. stay with your breath as best you can, when the mind wanders, come back to observing the movement of your breath in your body
Qualities of the breath
When you arrive in your pose, take a moment to find a few deep breaths to help you set up shop there. When you get comfortable, start to look at your breath like a scientist.
To practice, try this while reading here first. Ask yourself to observe the following:
1. Does my breath have sound? Can I quiet it if so?
2. How deep is my breath moving? Can I move it to the belly if it's not there already?
3. Is there a pause between my inhale and exhale and vice versa? Can I smooth out the edges of my breath so that instead, one flows continuously into the next.
4. Are my inhale and exhale an equal length? Count the seconds of each to tell.
5. Is there any jaggedness to my breath?
Observe exactly which body parts are moving as you breathe. Your belly rises, your chest lifts, even your ribs expand. You might even notice your elbows or shoulders rising on each breath in. Notice the breeze at your nostrils. Notice the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation. Stay curious about your breath. Watch how it affects you the longer you breathe like this. See if you can feel it start to shift your mood. Maybe it starts to dissipate any tension or annoyance you felt before. Observe the exchange on each breath - the exhalation surrenders the old, the inhalation accepts the fresh and new.
Spend about 3 minutes here when you're just getting started, and gradually increase it to 10 or 12 minutes there.
Don’t forget the power of your breath. Play with it. Practice it. Enjoy it. Do the work now to learn to really use it. Someday we will all encounter a situation where we need that skill.
Other practices for diaphragmatic breathing
1. Crocodile pose - your body has no choice but to breathe diaphragmatically when you're face down! It's a great place to start if you find that you're always forgetting to breathe
2. Sandbag breathing - use an 8 - 10 pound sandbag and place it on the area just at the bottom of your ribcage. The added weight gives you more resistance training - like weight lifting. It's also great for anxiety!