To find deep, full breathing in the comfortable cross-legged pose begin with the positioning of the pelvis. When seated, the pelvis is the place in our bodies affected most by earth’s gravitational pull. The positioning of the pelvic girdle will determine the depth and fullness of the inhalation.
Completely relax the gluteus muscles and think of your hips as though they are a heavy clay pot balanced upon the earth. This pot neither tips forward nor back but instead floats between these two possibilities (the male and female energies).
When the pelvis is truly balancing in neutral the lower abdominals automatically support the floating position. The lower back feels flat and long. For many people who habitually tilt the pelvis forward this may feel as though the lower back is rounded. Check the mirror and feel how relaxing it is to surrender the pelvis to mother earth.
Once the pelvis is neutral and the lower back long, the lower ribs will soften into the body. You can begin to feel the fluidity of the spinal column as it flows up from its base like a plant growing out of the soil.
Allow the shoulder blades to draw gently together and down the back. Feel the collarbones broaden and feel the heart open.
Each rib is like a leaf growing out of the spinal stem and moving with the billowing breath.
The back of the neck is like a neutral hinge much like the back of the flower. Like the flower it has the freedom to move toward the light. Its neutral floating position lends itself to all possibilities.
Finally the head like the flower itself is free and floating. The lightness of the head is dependent upon a neutral jaw and a relaxed tongue. A neutral jaw is achieved by creating a small space between the upper and lower back molars. The root of the tongue deep into the throat and the tip of the tongue are both equally soft.
Now you have created the optimal vessel for the practice of deergha swaasam.
Focus on your exhale. Allow the breath to be slow and steady. Feel the abdominals engage automatically and then purposefully pull the abdominal muscles towards to end of the exhalation. Feel the ribs draw into each other and collarbones lower as the chin gently rises.
For the inhalation, release the abdominal muscles and allow the belly to expand. When the pelvis is neutral, the diaphragm’s connection to the lumber spine will release and expand the lower back muscles. As the belly and lower back release the result will be the sensation of filling the entire pelvic bowl with air.
The release of the lower body will begin the expansion of the entire rib cage. The shoulder blades will draw together as the chest expands. The collarbones will broaden and the chin will slightly lower as the back of the neck lengthens.
There are a few key factors that determine one’s ability to successfully practice deep breathing. A few key pointers can give people the awareness they need so that they may utilize the gift of breath to restore and enhance the body’s balance, freedom and health.
We all need to practice — and should be practicing — deep breathing. Just as we all brush our teeth once or twice a day, we should be taking a few conscious breaths each day. There is plenty of medical evidence to show for the importance of breathing well and its relationship to our health. In fact, it has been documented that a breathing rate of six breaths per minute has a positive effect on the vital systems of the body. So why are we not taking these few minutes every day? I believe that the main reason is that few people know how to go about working on their breathing. Without some guidance, it is impossible to become involved in the process. The good news is that it’s rather magical; once you begin to check in with the breath, the mind becomes curious, the journey begins, and the rewards are plentiful. Our breath is among our most powerful and natural healing tools.
Here is a basic step-by-step guide to begin your breathing regimen.
Relax your back and be comfortable in your seat.
Allow your tongue and your jaw to be soft.
As you continue to relax, notice where and how your body is responding to the inhalations and the exhalations.
Continue to relax as you simply pay attention to your breathing.
With each exhalation notice a subtle compression.
With each inhalation sense the gentle expansion of your body as it bellows open to accommodate the incoming air.
Stay tuned into your breathing for a few minutes.
Note: Try and breathe only through your nose, but if you are unable to be completely relaxed try breathing out of the mouth and in through the nose instead.
Checking in with your breath for a few minutes each day will cause you to become more aware of any habitual tension. Just as a person with poor posture becomes aware as the muscles of good posture take over, so too will you begin to catch yourself in states of poor or shallow breathing as your body becomes accustomed to the free, natural movement of the breath. A simple tuning in each day is the first step towards breathing well always, even when moving through your most hectic day.
“Learn how to exhale” has always been my No. 1 tip as a breathing instructor. In the practice of deep breathing, your inhalation can only be as good as your exhalation. Extending exhalations for as long as you comfortably can and learning what muscles are involved is a great way to build awareness.
A purposeful exhalation requires a gentle pressure. Our abdominal muscles come into play, first automatically and then through our deliberate efforts. Practicing emptying the lungs in this way, without strain or struggle, is a good way to build strength in our breathing apparatus, slow down the pace of our normal breathing, and build lung capacity.
When we exhale, our diaphragm muscle relaxes but our abdominal muscles are working in order to expel the stale air from our lungs. Most of the time we are unaware of the role the abdominal muscles play in our breathing, but with practice we become engaged in this activity. In deep breathing exercises it is good to consciously work with our abdominal muscles in order to comfortably squeeze out as much air as possible from our lungs.
Learn how to release the abdominal muscles in a wave-like motion and the inhale will take care of itself. Our respiratory system works by way of a vacuum effect. By releasing all the effort that was required for exhalation, the air automatically comes flowing back into your body; however, this releasing motion requires practice.
Trying to take in deep, full breaths without letting go is counterproductive and creates tension. Full, yet relaxed inhalations require good letting-go skills. I know none of us normally think of letting go as a skill, but it really is something that we can participate in and become skillful at doing. Think of it this way: Relaxing after a long day is something we gradually work toward through an unwinding process. It doesn’t just happen when we sit down and stop. It is the same with the letting go motion of inhalation. The fact that it happens in only a few seconds actually makes it a bit more challenging, and this is why it takes practice. A good inhalation is not a tanking up of air but a gradual motion of release that results in a satisfying fullness. By learning how to exhale well you become better at breathing deeply.
Working with your breath this way can help you free your body of tension. Many of us are unaware of the tensions that are with us 24/7. Our breathing is designed to help us release any tensions that have become so much a part of us that we no longer sense their presence. A long, slow even, relaxed and steady exhalation and a wave like release is deep breathing at its finest.
Carla Melucci Ardito helps people to understand the path of the breath through the body and how their skeletal alignment plays a part in unencumbered respiration. She teaches a breathing workshop at The Integral Yoga Institute in New York City and has created the application BREATHING LESSONS for the iPhone, iPad and iPod to guide people through the basic principles that comprise healthy breathing patterns.
One day, early in my teaching career, a woman came to class complaining of lower back pain. She said that the discomfort was either from running (her chosen form of exercise) or from picking up and carrying her 2-year-old son.
I asked, “Have you tried breathing into your lower back?”
She looked at me as if I had two heads and said, “How the heck does one breathe into their lower back?” I had her get into child’s pose, a wonderfully restorative position. I placed my hand on her lower back and told her to lengthen her exhalations and to feel her lower belly filling during her inhalation. I suggested that while filling with air she allow her abdominal muscles to fully release and to watch for a simultaneous sensation of release in her lower back. I told her that she would begin to feel her lower back round up into the palm of my hand.
Soon enough she began to feel the movement in her lower back muscles and was amazed to discover that breathing into her lungs could create a much needed relaxation so deep down in her body. As a teacher of mind/body awareness, moments like these are the most gratifying. I had given this woman a way to undo tension that she would be able to use again and again in her life. Who hasn’t found their lower back in a bind from time to time?
How is it that the muscles of our lower back can be released through the breath? The answer lies in our anatomical design. The diaphragm muscle, the main muscle of breathing, has a connection, through accessory muscles, to the fourth and fifth vertebrae of the lumbar spine known as L4 and L5. The diaphragm muscle is shaped like a jellyfish. Picture a jellyfish, with all those tissue-like sheaths draping down from its dome. The accessory muscles of your dome-shaped diaphragm are like those sheaths, and they attach to muscles at the front of your hips and lower back. When we learn to allow for the full, free movement of our diaphragm, we allow for movement and release in other parts of our body.
We create discomfort in our lower backs in many ways: standing for long periods of time or sitting at our desks with poor posture. For instance, when we neglect being mindful during rigorous activity or exercise or when a stressful situation triggers our fight or flight response. Whatever the cause, it is helpful to know how to use the breath as a resource for relief and healing. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time to access release through breathing; it will happen eventually, and it is an invaluable tool for de-stressing. Making these connections between breath and body heightens sensitivity and prompts us to take better care of ourselves. Utilizing restorative postures such as child’s pose, and knowing how to apply breath, is a great way to eliminate tension and makes us less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.
My colleagues Dr. Alexes Hazen, Tamar Amitay, MSPT, and I recently found ourselves emerged in a discussion about bones. Our bones are fascinating on many levels, and we, the doctor, physical therapist and yoga teacher, would like to inspire you as we examine them from a physiological, anatomical and metaphysical standpoint. For starters, here is an issue we would like to address. Our bones are living, breathing tissue; they are NOT the hard, brittle, skeletal parts we occasionally saw dangling from a rolling hook in the school science lab. If we are unknowingly holding this inaccurate image in our minds, then we are also unknowingly maintaining an unhealthy mind-body relationship with our bones. If you believe, and many of us do, that the mind plays an important role in our health, then we need to be sure that we imagine our bones in all their glory and that we learn to cultivate a therapeutic, working relationship with them as we age.
Alexes says, “We tend not to think of our bones as a living organ — but they are very much alive. In addition to providing structure for our body, they protect all our important organs and help us nourish our entire body with the creation of red and white blood cells. Very much alive, turning over their cells and composition on a regular basis, our bones are literally changing every day.”
A medical study in The American Journal of Physiology suggests that the oxygen supply to our bones directly affects bone formation and bone physiology. In my breathing workshop, I am always reminding my students that our breathing is supplying the oxygen to every single cell in our body. When it comes to delivering oxygen to our breathing bones, the supply is either helped or hindered by our alignment — this is where Tamar comes in. As a physical therapist, Tamar helps people find efficient and neutral body alignment because she knows that proper bone alignment optimizes breathing. Tamar points out that poor posture is often the result of muscular imbalances due to repetitive activities or positions without reprieve. Think of spending hours bent over a computer without a break, or carrying a heavy purse on the same side of your body every day. If the skeleton is not aligned and no longer efficient it will not only cause discomfort and damage to joints, organs and muscles, but will also infringe upon the diaphragm’s ability to do its job.
Tamar says, “Ideal postural alignment comes from being upright against gravity so that your bones fit properly with one another. An optimal distribution of forces on bones and joints allow your muscles to relax and minimizes stress on your tissues. Efficient and neutral body alignment optimizes breathing, allowing the lungs to expand and the diaphragm to descend for inhalation. Proper posture allows the musculoskeletal system to function with minimal muscular effort and zero give.”
As Tamar talked about the relationship between bone alignment and muscle efficiency and their influence on our breathing body, she reminded me that when it comes to our bones and muscles, including the muscles involved in breathing, we are very much a system of checks and balances.
Dr. Hazen pointed out that the bones are a regulator of many bodily functions and that they need to be supplied well with oxygen in order to play their role in our health. Our bones are involved in the regulation of blood sugar levels and hormone levels and they participate in calcium metabolism as well. She feels it is important for us to know and remember that without the exchange of healthy oxygen coming in and carbon dioxide leaving, our bones cannot do all the things they need to do in an efficient way. She also noted that people who have lung disease often have very bad osteoporosis.
Our breathing and our bones work in tandem and play an important role in keeping us healthy. When our bones are positioned well and our breathing is optimum, oxygen can be supplied more efficiently to our whole body, including the bones themselves. It is a beautifully balanced system with each part depending on the other in order do its job well.
Alexes, Tamar and I are all in agreement that if you become familiar with your bones and postural tendencies you will not only help yourself heal and avoid future discomfort but you can also enhance the efficiency of your breathing and live a more mindful, healthier life. The more we learn about our bodies, the more we can become partners in our health and wellbeing. Good doctors, therapists and teachers help people to build and foster these important mind/body relationships because we know that they are self-empowering and emotionally uplifting.
Since I have dedicated a large part of my life to being a cheerleader for the cause of conscious breathing and mindful movement. I am more than delighted when Dr. Hazen says, ” Healthy breathing makes for healthy bones!” and when Tamar claims, “Your bone positioning affects the quality of your breathing.”
In conclusion, please check in with yourself, and be sure that when you think of your bones
(and I hope you do so often) that the image in your mind is one of strong yet supple and malleable living tissue, full of activity, and rich with fluid, flowing purpose — because then I am sure that you will develop a lifelong dedication to their care. We do have an emotional relationship with our bodies, and if you ascribe to the notion, “as I think, so I am,” then it’s best that you think well. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we are involved in an emotional relationship with our entire body all the time.