If you don’t breathe, you die. It is very simple. “Hasta la vista, baby,” as Arnie might say. Fortunately we don’t have to think about breathing 24 hours a day or we would not be able to sleep and that would be very annoying and inconvenient indeed.
Unfortunately, because we don’t have to think about breathing, many of us don’t. And that’s a shame because aside from being important, the breath is very interesting and, moreover, awareness of the breath can transform your life. Really.
Awareness of the Breath
It’s a pretty big call to say awareness of the breath can transform your life some of you might say. But have you ever really stopped to listen to it? Feel it? Have you ever noticed how it changes when you are anxious or when you cry those great big heaving sobs we all do from time to time? Have you ever noticed the effect of taking a few deliberate long, slow, deep breaths can have on you? If the answer is no, see if you can remember to take a few of them next time you start to feel overwhelmed by any emotion and see what happens. And, if you can remember to take such breaths when you are doing difficult or ‘scary’ postures in yoga, you will notice a huge difference.
A part of your yoga practice always includes breath awareness. Sometimes this is just at the beginning of the class, but, as you become more experienced, you will find that you become aware of the breath as you practice. As the awareness increases, and as your practice develops, you will come to be able to consciously use the breath to assist you in your practice, and your day-to-day life.
Breath awareness helps connect you to the present moment, which is why it is often used at the beginning of a class. It also is the first step in learning to control the breath.
There is a lot of anatomy and physiology about breathing that you can read out there, and I am going to grossly over-simplify it. I am not an expert and if you want to read more then do a Google search using the key words “Leslie Kaminoff”, “Roger Cole”, or “H. David Coulter” and “breathing” and you will find some excellent reading material by highly qualified yogis. Here, I just want to outline a few different types of breathing. To do this, I will start with giving a really simplified version of how we breathe.
First, you have ribs. Your ribcage holds and protects all sorts of important things, for instance your heart and your lungs. Your lungs are basically ‘stuck’ to your chest wall (held in place by a vacuum that exists between the outer surface of the lungs and the inner surface of the chest wall). This means if your ribcage expands, your lungs also expand and if your ribcage gets smaller then the lungs will too.
[Obscure but interesting fact #1: if you were to get stabbed in your chest the vacuum that holds your lungs to the chest wall would be penetrated and the lung would then collapse. Because your lung collapsed you would not be able to breathe. Because you have two lungs this would probably not be deadly unless both sides of your ribcage were penetrated although you would definitely need to go to a hospital. In general, it is a good idea not to get stabbed].
Your ribcage can expand because of muscles that you have between the ribs (called intercostals). These muscles can expand and contract and, as they do, the ribs (and the lungs) move with them. The movement can be enhanced using other muscles as well. It is helpful to think of your ribcage as a three-dimensional structure that can expand in all directions. Importantly, the contents of the ribcage can change shape and volume.
Second, you have an abdomen (our belly, you know, the place many of you point to and ask me to get rid of in class!). Inside your abdomen are other interesting things like your stomach, intestines, liver and so forth. You also have abdominal muscles. These muscles mainly help in deep and forced exhalations and sometimes we deliberately engage them in some yogic breathing techniques.
[Interesting thing to try #1: Purse your lips and try to force your breath out through your mouth. You will feel your abdominal muscles really engage to help you breathe out. The same thing happens when you try to blow up a really tough balloon.]
When we consider breathing, it is important to remember that the abdominal cavity can change shape, but it cannot change volume (it can change volume in other situations, like when you eat or drink a lot or when you are pregnant but just not when you breathe).
Third, you have the thing that separates the contents of your ribcage from the contents of your abdomen, known as your diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a dome shaped sheet of muscle. The top of the dome is about level with the middle of your sternum (breast-bone). The walls of the dome run along the bottom of your ribs and are attached to them. When you look at a picture of the diaphragm (see video link above) you can see that the lungs are actually quite high up in the ribcage and the diaphragm sits below it. The diaphragm is the major muscle of respiration, helped mainly by the intercostals and the abdominals.
Now, what happens when you breathe?
The first thing to remember is that breath does not enter the body because you suck it in. Breath enters the body because of a pressure difference between the outside air and the air inside your body.
When your diaphragm is relaxed it is dome shaped. Your brain gives the diaphragm a signal that you are inhaling and the diaphragm contracts. This contraction causes the diaphragm to change shape as the muscular walls of the diaphragm pull the top of the dome downwards. This makes the diaphragm flat rather than dome-shaped.
As the diaphragm flattens it starts to push on the abdominal contents below. At the same time, the chest cavity becomes larger. The expansion in the chest cavity, which can be helped by the intercostal muscles, expands the lungs as well (since the lungs simply change shape depending on the size of the ribcage). This means there is greater space inside the lungs, which creates a pressure difference. The air inside the lungs is now at a lower pressure than the air outside of us, which causes air to get pushed into the lungs.
[Interesting thing to try #2: Take that balloon I referred to earlier. Blow it up. Hold the top, don’t tie it off. Inside the balloon you have created an area of high pressure compared to the outside air. If you loosen your fingers at the top the air inside will start to rush out. The air is moving from an area of high pressure to low pressure.]
Once air comes in, the diaphragm relaxes, this causes the thoracic volume to decrease, which causes the thoracic pressure to increase, which causes the air to go back out.
Controlling the breath
One of the interesting things you learn in yoga is how to control the movement of the breath or the movements associated with the breath. Keeping in mind the mechanism of breathing just discussed let’s consider three different ways of controlling your breathing (though there are more). The first two are the most useful to us in yoga (though not necessarily the most useful of all yoga breathing techniques). The third is one I wouldn’t recommend using without a deliberate reason and I mention it only so you might recognize if you are breathing like this in daily life and, if you are, see if you can move towards the other types of breathing.
Diaphragmatic Belly Breathing
First, lie on your back and relax your belly. When you inhale from this position your diaphragm will move down and press on the contents of your belly. As the belly contents get moved, this causes the belly to rise. Note that you are not breathing into your belly—your belly does not get filled with air. Your diaphragm is not even filled with air. Your lungs are what get filled with air and you are just seeing and feeling the consequences of the diaphragm moving down towards the abdomen.
When you exhale in this position the diaphragm returns to its original position (moves back up towards the lungs) and the belly contents can settle back down so that the belly will fall. You can try doing this exercise with one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to really feel the rise and fall of the belly and you will see that the hand on the belly moves but the hand on the chest stays still. This is a very basic breathing technique and is said to have a calming effect.
Diaphragmatic Lower Rib Cage Breathing
For the second exercise, stay lying on your back. However, instead of keeping the belly relaxed, slightly contract your abdominal muscles. Now, because these muscles are slightly firmer (no need to go for a six-pack—just a bit of pressure will do) the contents of the belly are pulled slightly back and upward towards the diaphragm. This means when you inhale, the diaphragm cannot push down into the belly. Instead, the diaphragm contracts and pulls the lower ribs (where it attaches) up and out towards it. The lower ribs start to expand to the front, to the side, and to the back, and pull the lungs with them, creating the pressure difference we spoke about before and bringing air in.
In this exercise you will feel expansion of the ribcage, particularly or the lower ribs, as they move outwards. If you were to place your hands around the lower ribs with the middle fingers touching in the centre, you would find that as you inhaled your fingers would move apart from each other and as you exhaled they moved together again. The belly remains relatively still.
Constricted Upper Rib Cage Breathing
There is another type of breathing that some of us may have developed. This type of breathing is typically shallow, rapid, and irregular and is commonly associated with stress and tension. This breath resides in the upper rib cage. Habitually breathing like this is said to reflect physical and mental tension as well as create it. Imagine a mouse cornered by a cat panting rapidly and nervously to give yourself an idea of this type of breathing.
However, that is not to say that breathing into your upper rib cage is all bad. Many yoga postures and breathing exercises requires us to do this, but—and here is the key difference—with awareness and control. The deepest of inhalations require you to breathe into all parts of the ribcage and the upper ribs should expand all the way up to the collar bones. But, all said, it is best to leave this type of breathing for deliberate and conscious use. If you are a habitual upper chest breather it is probably worth trying to experiment with some other types of breathing.
How should I breathe then?
How you breathe depends on what you are doing.
Belly breathing is deeply relaxing. It massages the abdominal organs and feels very soothing. Some say it can be too soothing and lead to a depressed nervous system, although others say this is the most natural way to breathe. Perhaps it is for this reason that we often start yoga practices by observing this type of breath.
Diaphragmatic lower rib cage breathing allows you to take long, smooth breaths and we use it a lot in our yoga practice. It can be tricky to learn at first, but is worth the effort. This type of breathing requires more attention and brings more control to and awareness of the torso. It helps to bring more air into all parts of the lungs and deepens the inhalation. It can also assist in deepening some of the back-bending postures.
As for upper chest breathing, well, you need this as well, especially if you are going to do some vigorous exercise. And you need it for some yoga techniques as well.
The thing is there are a variety of traditions and professions out there where different types of breathing are advocated. For example, I have been looking on the internet all weekend and have found martial arts experts advocating their own breathing techniques, not to mention the actors, singers, and public speakers. There is a lot of discussion in these articles about where the breath should go, although everyone stresses the importance of the diaphragm and perhaps because it universally recognized as important, most techniques are labeled “diaphragmatic”.
The thing to understand is all breathing is diaphragmatic. You won’t breathe without your diaphragm unless you are on a respirator [Interesting but slightly obscure fact #2: If you have a high level spinal cord injury and the nerves that supply your diaphragm are severed then you will quickly die unless you are placed on a respirator, aka Christopher Reeves].
But, what you want to learn through yoga is to bring conscious awareness to steer the breath to the place that it is most useful for you at a particular point in time.
The breath is a really big and interesting topic and I will have to leave it for now but promise to come back!