Dynamics and use of Breath to Deepen and Open Yoga Practice
By: Nils Thomas
“When the asana is correct there is a lightness, a freedom. Freedom comes when every part of the body is active. Let us be free in whatever action we are doing. Let us be full in whatever we do.” B.K.S. Iyengar
One of the fundamental foundations of yoga is the breath. Indeed, without proper breath and breathing technique, it can be said our yoga postures are little more than acrobatics. As the tides and waves breathe and cycle life into the oceans, so too does our own breath ebb and flow with an unconscious rhythm bringing energy, calmness and stability. The breath affects our emotions, moods, physicality and health. Donna Farhi explains in a wonderful passage from Yoga Mind Body and Spirit, “Breathing is both a process that happens unconsciously or automatically and a process that can be controlled consciously through the will of our minds. At one end of a continuum breathing remains unconscious so that we can go about our business without having constantly to think about taking a breath in or out. At the other end of the continuum breathing can be controlled and manipulated. In between these two ends of the continuum lays a third possibility, and that is a place where we simply become conscious of being breathed. We allow this essential breathing to happen to us naturally.”[i]
Let us explore the dynamics and use of breath in order to deepen and open our yoga practice.
How the body breathes
Lungs: Breath is life. Every living thing on our planet processes its own unique combination of atmospheric gasses in order to sustain life. The lungs are the first receptors of air into the body. They intake the mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen which makes up the planets’ atmosphere and process the oxygen, sending it through capillaries, and into the bloodstream, which then brings fresh oxygenated blood to the muscles and brain. Without this fresh supply of oxygen the brain would soon start to shut off, eventually losing consciousness. The muscles would harden and lock, most importantly the heart, and the body would rapidly die. Essential for the functioning of the whole life system, lungs are located behind the ribs, which serve to protect, aid and help to contain the lungs, extending on either side of the thoracic cavity, and from the collarbones to the lower ribs until approximately the 10th thoracic vertebra. The lungs themselves are merely portals, processors, and distributors into the blood stream for air, the intake and expulsion of which is primarily controlled by the diaphragm and intercostals muscles. Muscles:
“Inhalations can take place only as a result of muscular activity. Exhalations are different: the lungs have the capacity to get smaller because their elasticity keeps pulling them, along with the rib cage, to a smaller size.”[ii] Two sets of intercostal muscles, located between the ribs, act to expand and contract the chest cavity, respectively. External intercostals operate to lift and expand the rib cage for inhalation, while the internal intercostals aid the natural deflation of the lungs by pulling the ribs closer together as well as down for exhalation. Abdominal muscles aid the diaphragm and intercostal muscles mainly in deep exhalations, helping to compress the area of the chest cavity, thereby pushing air out of the lungs. They serve as well in being a key component for stability in many yoga postures.
Diaphragm: “Responsible for 75% of all respiratory effort is the diaphragm”,[iii] shaped like a dome resting below the heart yet above the liver and stomach (in the lower middle of the thoracic cavity), connecting to the breastbone, ribs and spinal vertebrae. The expansion of the diaphragm compresses the lower organs down, pushes the ribs out, and creates a vacuum space for the lungs to fill with air. When the diaphragm relaxes up, it assists the natural reaction of the lungs to maintain equilibrium with the outside environmental pressure and deflate, expulsing the waste air and carbon dioxide from the cellular process. To create and maintain a sense of focus, clarity, relaxation and calmness for any task and indeed in daily life, I have found it is important to know how to breathe using the most natural process. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, and it maximises the lungs’ capacity to intake and process oxygen, slows nervous heart rates and thereby affecting overall mental, emotional, and physical health. To begin, notice which part of the body is raised or active with the inhalation. Very common is for people to breathe only into their upper chest region, pulling their belly in with the inhale. This is not where we should be commonly and regularly breathing. It is a “fight or flight” breathing pattern used to give the body short bursts of adrenalin, and as is common when this is prolonged, accepted as habitual and not noticed, it will generate stress, exhaustion, and eventually adrenal fatigue, affecting our whole sense of wellbeing.
Much preferable, and the best way to breathe, in a general application, is to be aware of breathing slowly and evenly from the belly and lower breastbone area, not holding the breath. In this manner the abdomen (belly) is consciously pushed out with the inhale and drawn in with the exhale, while maintaining a slight abdominal muscle tension, thus flaring the ribs to the side and out, rather than up and out. This helps to activate the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle used to breathe and all too often forgotten in a life of stress. Breathing this way is also very good for aiding poor posture, helping us to stand or sit in a better-aligned way while relaxing the shoulders, lower and upper back. Breathing like this can take a little practice, as for most people breathing is totally unconscious, especially the way we breathe. However, when this focus is repeated, the body will quickly naturally accept and welcome the change in pattern and a noticeable effect will soon be seen on the state of mind, emotions and health.
We can see in our practice that gravity and muscles play an important part of creating and accessing our yoga postures. Yet we soon realize that when we stand, lie, or sit with quiet focus in a pose for a few minutes that indeed there is something else which is very active in this balance. That something is the breath. “Under most circumstances of normal breathing, inhalations will either lift you more fully into a posture or create more tension in the body, and exhalations will either relax you further into the posture or reduce tension.”[iv]
Now that we have some insight into the correct breathing patterns for daily life, let us look into the dynamics of the breath with regard to some focus on application in specific postures.
Breath in Asana
Forward Bend: “stretching the west” I have found forward bends to be soothing, and calming to the mind, breath, and physical body. They stretch and lengthen the entire backside of the body, thus releasing built up tension and improving circulation in the ankles and feet, knees, hips, lower back, spine, torso, and neck. Areas where I personally have a common tendency to store toxins and stress in the form of muscular tension. The spine, especially, is taught and encouraged to lengthen, increasing the space and circulation between the vertebrae. As Erich Schiffmann describes, “the spine is the “freeway” to your brain, or the freeway from your brain to the entire body. The freer it is, the less congested, the better. Nerves throughout the body have their origin in the spinal cord, when they are freed and fed, nourished and healed, you will experience more vitality. As the spine and backside of the body is being stretched, the front side is firmed and toned. The abdominal muscles receive a deep massage, which is soothing to the nervous system and generates calmness and serenity.” [v]
Paschimottanasana “seated forward bend” Inhalation accesses and lengthens the spine, creating space along the vertebrae. Bending forward from the hips on the exhalation be aware of drawing the abdomen in to allow for more space to fold forward. As the upper thighs eventually are gently compressing the abdominal muscles, it is important to focus on expanding the rig cage out with use of the diaphragm while holding no tension in the lower abdominal muscles. In my practice, the inner focus in Pascimottanasana is on drawing energy up the back of the legs from the feet along to the sacrum with the inhale. Then the gentle exhale brings the focus and energy travelling along the spine toward the hands, expanding, elongating, and creating more space for going deeper into the pose. A special note should be made to be aware of not holding any contraction in the shoulders and collarbones by breathing only with the upper chest. This can create tension and affect the ability to release fully into the pose. I have found to help with this, it is possible to view the pose as a flow and cycle, coming up ever so slightly, even an inch or two with the inhale, and with the exhale releasing down and along the legs again deeper with each breath. In this way the pose becomes more than just a static stretch, taking on the rhythm of breath and using that to develop whole body awareness and access the subtle connections between mind, spirit, and physical body.
Back Bend: “stretching the east” Back bending postures are exhilarating, strengthening, opening, and invigorating! In back bending, I begin to explore and extend myself, literally and figuratively, by lifting my posture, raising my spirits, and preparing myself for action. “With their emphasis on opening the heart, lungs, and chest, back bends bring a sense of lightness and vitality that wards off even the most tenacious lethargy or depression. Almost all of our daily activities bend the body forward. When we bend the spine backward, we take a defiant step away from this downward plunge, counteracting the not-so-inevitable effects of aging and, in doing so, giving ourselves a more uplifted perspective on life.”[vi]
Ustrasana: “camel pose” Beginning gently at first, I allow the centre to become still and upright. The inherent vulnerability of back bends in exposing the heart center can be a powerful inhibiter to fully accessing the stretch. In Ustrasana, as in all back bends, it is important to bring space and length to the thoracic or “dorsal” area of the spine so as not to compress too easily into the lumbar and neck, which I have observed is common with beginners not used to moving the spine in this way. As the abdomen is extended and not engaged in this pose, there is more room to breath with the diaphragm here. Placing the hands on the sacrum and pulling down helps to lengthen and flatten the lower back and will allow you to inhale space between the upper back vertebrae as you start to slowly arch back. Rather than throwing the head back right away, keep it in line with the rest of the spine, which is relaxing into the posture. The breath helps during inhalation to bring stability and length to Ustrasana, by focusing on the back lungs and ribs while filling the area from the diaphragm to the collarbones and arching backward. In the exhale, rest at the stage you are at. This will be protective of the lumbar and neck. Keeping the pelvis forward, in line with the knees as much as possible, again with the conscious diaphragmatic inhale, go a little deeper into the pose. When this becomes comfortable and as the arch is mainly in the dorsal spine, the more adept student can play with lengthening and deepening the bend with both the inhale and exhale. You may see that this process is slightly different from the general instruction for forward bends. This is because of the common occurrence in back bends to hyperextend into the lumbar region and neck. Thusly, by arching with the inhale we engage and invite the upper back to lengthen and extend back gracefully, protecting the sensitive vertebrae and muscles of the neck and lumbar. In my own practice, when I developed the stability and, with the breath, created the space necessary to be comfortable in a gradual Ustrasana, then the hands were able to reach back and find the heels and the neck could be safely extended and released partially back without straining the front neck for comfort in the full posture. Back bends open the upper back and chest, and stabilize the shoulders so that your posture feels engaged and integrated. They also stretch your breathing apparatus from the diaphragm to the lungs and the intercostals muscles between each rib, which has helped me to breathe deeper in daily life.
Twists: I have found twisting postures in Hatha yoga to be a wonderful complement to forward and backward bending because they exercise muscles in more subtle and complex ways than is accomplished by the mostly symmetrical movements of flex and extension alone. The compression of the spine and other areas of the torso improves nutrition to the intervertebral disks and squeezes blood out of the internal organs of the abdomen and pelvis, improving circulation in these supportive systems of the body. As B.K.S. Iyengar likes to describe, there is an internal “squeezing and soaking” of the organs of the body, alternatively purging and flooding the organs and muscles with fresh nutrients, stimulating and cleansing the body systems both physically and emotionally. For these reasons, twisting postures are essential for a complete practice and should always be included in any balanced program of Hatha yoga. With regard to breathing, twisting the torso constricts abdominal breathing because it makes the lower abdominal wall taut and prevents its expansion. Under ordinary circumstances, this encourages diaphragmatic breathing, where the descent of the dome of the diaphragm lifts the rib cage, but that also is limited because thoracic twisting keeps the upper abdomen taut as well, which in turn limits flaring of the base of the rib cage. The twist in the thorax even limits the ability to lift the chest for thoracic breathing. If you come into a simple cross-legged spinal twist, you can feel restrictions in breathing everywhere, but at the same time you will notice small respiratory movements throughout the torso, some in the lower abdomen, some flaring of the rib cage, and some lifting of the rib cage. The one mode of breathing you’ll not see is paradoxical breathing, and this makes spinal twists a special blessing for anyone trying to break that habit.[vii]
Ardha Matsyendrasana “half lord of the fishes” In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Matsyendra is mentioned as one of the founders of Hatha Vidya.[viii] B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “It is related that once Lord Siva went to a lonely island and explained to his consort Parvati the mysteries of Yoga. A fish near the shore heard everything with concentration and remained motionless while listening. Siva realizing that the fish had learnt yoga, sprinkled water upon it, and immediately the fish gained divine form and became Matsyendra and thereafter spread the knowledge of yoga.” [ix] This pose is a strong twist, and instead of the preparatory alignments of the legs, we will concentrate our focus on the breath. To allow a deeper, more complete twist, I have found it is important to actuate it in segments. In the first stages, before the main twist has begun, breathe length and space into the spine. Facing forward, with the inhale grounding the sit bones and elongating through the crown of the head, gently drop the chin ever so slightly. Move the back ribs in and, with the exhale, visualize turning the stomach only keeping the ribs, chest and head facing forward. Again with the inhale, keep this position and lengthen the space between the vertebrae. With the next exhalation, turn then the ribs and chest from the lowest to the upper. Note that twisting is extremely limited in the lumbar spine, and it is important to maintain the alignment of the pelvis squared to forward. Pause here during the inhale and feel how the spine is starting to spiral from a base of grounding in the hips to the mid and upper-back. On each successive exhalation, twist a little further, accessing the thoracic, and shoulder area. Finally bring the cervical area of neck, and head and eye’s to follow the twist and breathe here evenly for as long as is comfortable. When I have softened my effort and focused internally, I experienced that this twisting asana can be held comfortably, then one can play with the breath during both the inhalation and exhalation, lengthening upward with the inhalation and going deeper into the twist with the exhalation. When complete, exhale, turning slowly back to forward, starting with the abdomen, then the chest and shoulders, and finally bringing along the neck, head and eyes. Inversions: Inversions revitalize the whole system. They turn your body upside down, reversing the effects of gravity, and flood the brain with nourishment. Like twists, but more so, inversions are cleansing and nourishing at the deepest levels, and thereby bring tremendous health benefits. The entire physical system, under control of the brain, is energized and nourished, as the brain is washed clean and flooded with rich new nutrients. The mind clears. Thinking improves. Understanding ensues. Headstand, in particular, activates the pineal and pituitary glands, the master glands of the endocrine system that control the chemical balance of the body. Shoulder stand strengthens the nervous system and emotions by stimulating the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which regulate metabolism. Inversions in general, by elevating the legs, improve circulation, venous return, and lymph drainage, all of which nourish cells in the face, muscles, and skin, relieve strain and fatigue in the legs and feet, and stimulate intestinal sluggishness, improving digestion and elimination. They are a marvellous aid to sleep. Time spent upside down everyday is one of the best things you could possibly do. The ancient yogis were clever to have figured this out. Inversions turn you upside down and root you in the now. These poses are especially beneficial after a stressful day, because they evoke calm, quiet an over stimulated brain, and soothe the nerves.[x]
Sirsasana “headstand” Sirsasana is truly a blessing and a nectar. Its beneficial results and effects are manifold. In this asana alone, the brain can draw plentiful Prana and blood. This acts against the force of gravity and draws an abundance of blood from the heart. Memory increases admirably. By itself, this leads to natural Pranayama and Samadhi. When I watch the breath, I have noticed that it becomes finer and finer. In the beginning of practice, there can be slight difficulty in breathing. As you advance in practice, this vanishes entirely. You will find real pleasure, exhilaration of spirit, in this asana.[xi] “For those who can do it easily, Sirsasana is the best possible training posture for abdominal or ‘diaphragmatic’ breathing. It invokes the most complete use of the diaphragm of any posture, and it does so automatically, because the headstand both encourages abdominal breathing and restricts chest breathing.”[xii]
Meditation and Stillness: When I was a young professional sailor, I often spent months at sea without sight of land… “In the stark quiet out at sea, my mind began to wander, and I started to notice the idle chatter of my thoughts. So much nonsense. Flashes of the past and different paths not taken. Things I said, things I might not have said, things I should have said, things I most definitely should not have said, people, places, pieces of songs I can’t remember all the words to, but make the rest up anyway, repeating ad nauseam in my brain. I felt I might be going slightly mad. I had to encourage and accept my brain to be quiet. I simply had to face the thoughts as they popped into my mind, set them aside, look at them, and let them go. I practiced yoga postures, the sitting ones, and focused on my breathing and the natural environment around me. Clouds lazily drifting, the sound of the sails’ idle flapping, my own place in the world.”[xiii] And so began my own first practices into meditation.
In meditation it may be helpful to consider a few points. Become aware of the natural division of the breathing process. It has three parts: the in-breath, the retention and the out-breath. The in-breath should be natural and never forced: air should flow into the body as a result of the expansion of the abdomen. When the breath is retained, the lower part of the body should take the shape of a pot: the Yoga term for this is “Kumbhak” meaning “container”. The retention of breath is the point of greatest potency. During this period, the inhaled air is partly absorbed by the lungs, vitalizing the whole body. The out-breath, or exhalation, rids the system of waste and surplus products. Tantric teachings advise that during inhalation, one should imagine oneself absorbing the life-giving energies of Brahma. During retention, one should focus on extracting the life force of the air and circulating it through the whole body. During exhalation, one should imagine all negativity, physical ailments or tension leaving the body and returning to the earth for purification. These three parts of the breathing process should interact smoothly, without any harsh or jerky movements. Furthermore, one should cultivate mental awareness of the movement of breath in and out of the body. The Goraksashatakam, a yogic text of the medieval period, aptly states: “When the breath is unsteady, everything is unsteady; but when the breath is still, all else is still. So one should control the breath carefully. Inhale slowly and exhale likewise, neither retaining the breath excessively nor beyond your capacity. Do not exhale too rapidly. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled and purified body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; and exhalation is totally purifying”.[xiv]
When the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of our being come together in each and every one of our trillions of cells – when there is a oneness from the cell to the self, from the physical body to the core of the being – then the pose is a contemplative pose and we have reached the highest state of contemplation in the asana. This is known as integration, which Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras, and which involves integration of the body (sarira-samyama), integration of the breath (prana-samyama), integration of the senses (indriya-samyama), integration of the mind (manah-samyama), integration of the intelligence or of knowledge (buddhi-samyama or jnana-samyama) and, finally, integration of the self with all existence (atma-samyama). This is a focus on how the Asanas are to be performed. It cannot come in a day and it cannot come in years. It is a lifelong process, provided that the practitioner has the yogic vitamins of faith, memory, courage, absorption, and uninterrupted awareness of attention. Since Yoga means integration, bringing together, it follows that bringing body and mind together, bringing nature and the seer together, is Yoga.[xv] [ii] H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga pp. 74 [iii] Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book pp. 51 [iv] H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga pp. 280 [v] Erich Schiffmann, Yoga The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness pp. 232,233 [vi] Donna Farhi, Yoga Mind Body and Spirit pp. 172 [vii] H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga pp. 433 [viii] Hatha Yoga Pradipika, chpt. 1:4 [ix] B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga pp. 158 [x] Erich Schiffmann, Yoga the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness pp. 267 [xi] Swami Sivananda, Yoga Asanas pp. 15-16 [xii] H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga pp. 474 [xiii] Nils Thomas, South Sea Adventures [xiv] Nic Douglas and Penny Slinger, The Alchemy of Ecstasy pp. 27 [xv] B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga pp. 48