This will be the first in a series of posts describing the different pranayama breathing exercises I’ll be doing all month. First up is diaphragmatic breathing. This technique is just what it sounds like: breathing with your diaphragm.
Take in a deep breath, and let it out. Notice how your body had to work to breathe in, and how you relax as you exhale. This is natural: your lungs’ natural position is to be empty, so it doesn’t take any work to breathe out, but breathing in requires muscular work. If you aren’t paying attention to your breath, your body will do this automatically, but we want to bring some attention to how we breathe, notice any patterns or habits, and cultivate an awareness of how this system works. (After all, it’s what keeps you alive!) There are three main types of breathing: diaphragmatic breathing (which makes your belly pooge out), thoracic or chest breathing (which makes your ribcage expand), and clavicular or upper chest breathing (shallow breaths that make your upper chest and even shoulders move up and down).
The diaphragm is the muscle right under your lungs that helps you to breathe. When your lungs are empty, the diaphragm curves up into the natural space made by your ribcage; when you breathe in, the diaphragm flattens out as the lungs fill with air. By flattening the diaphragm, you draw air all the way down into the bottom of the lungs. This is a good thing! The lungs’ job is to oxygenate the blood, so that oxygen can be carried throughout the body. When we are sitting up or standing, gravity causes the blood to gather at the bottom of the lungs, so by using the diaphragm to pull air to the bottom of the lungs, the air can get the blood more easily and your lungs can do their job more efficiently.
Sit up straight and place one hand on your belly. Breathe in through your nose, concentrating on making your belly puff out. (No one’s watching, and you’re not wearing a bikini, so go ahead.) Don’t expand the ribcage, and don’t let your shoulders lift – just feel the belly puff out. Then breathe out, also through your nose, and feel the belly contract. If you exhale long enough, your belly might even go concave. Then breathe in and puff the belly out again. Do this a few more times until you get the feel of it. Then put your hand on your chest and do some shallow chest breathing: like a dog panting, or like you’re on the treadmill at the gym. Feel your chest go up and down; if you’re near a mirror, you can see this too. Do you feel the difference? You need a lot more of the shallow breaths to equal one long, slow diaphragmatic breath.
Next time, we’ll combine diaphragmatic breath with thoracic and clavicular/shallow breath to form (like Voltron) a three-part breath!
A person can only progress forward with the technique with practice, and eventually, one ends with the slow and steady breathing pattern that is fluid and strong. Long and lasting breaths, such as proposed by the Pranayama Yoga, work to benefit the parasympathetic nervous functions of the body.
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