Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Pranayama: Diaphragmatic Breathing May 26, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 2:32 pm
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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!


Teacher Training Weekend: Saturday Pranayama May 25, 2011

Filed under: breath,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 6:45 pm
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This month at teacher training is Breath Month! At Saturday’s teacher training session, we started work on pranayama, which are breathing exercises designed to improve the flow of energy in the body. Life energy, or prana, is what enlivens all of us, what makes us alive. Prana courses through the body, giving us energy, helping our cells do their work, and healing any problems. Breath is the mechanism by which prana is able to move in the body, so by deepening the breath, we can increase the flow of prana, and by practicing other breathing exercises, we can affect our energy levels and our mood and even heal illness.

So far in teacher training, we’ve studied the yamas and niyamas (moral practices), and asana (physical postures), all of which I’m completely on board with. Now, though, we’re getting into the realm of New Agey stuff. I don’t know how much I buy into the prana thing, or the concept that by practicing certain breathing techniques we can heal illness. I know the body is capable of many miracles, and so I’m trying to keep my mind open.

I’ve started on this month’s reading in Science of Breath, and one thing so far has made a lot of sense. In chapter 1, the authors point out that breathing is a unique biological function: it’s involuntary, like heartbeat or digestion, so it will happen automatically no matter what, but unlike heartbeat or digestion, breathing is a function that we can also control if we choose. It’s the only involuntary function that we can control. Ancient yogis noticed that breathing is unique in this way and decided that, because breath is the only function that is both voluntary and involuntary, breath might be the link between the body and the mind and controlling it might be the key to controlling other bodily functions. That sort of makes sense to me: breath is already in a special category, so maybe it does other cool stuff too. More to come as I continue with this month’s homework (see below).

We also had teaching practice on Saturday afternoon. We formed one big class together and J tapped each person to teach a part of the class to the whole group, telling us which poses to teach. I was given sun salutations; I taught the classical version with lunges, which I hadn’t taught before, and I think I did well. It was interesting, as always, to see how my classmates teach and what they say versus what they don’t say.

Here’s our homework for this month:

  • Complete an ayurvedic profile, tally the score, and read the results about your body type
  • Read the book Science of Breath by Swami Rama
  • Start on the book Moola Bandha: The Master Key by Swami Buddhananda
  • Practice daily pranayama exercises: diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate nostril breathing (I’ll define the types of breathing for you in a later post, but what we’re talking about here is ten minutes or so, ideally twice a day)
  • Keep a journal about the pranayama exercises, my reflections and observances; this will evolve into being my paper to hand in next month
  • Do two posture write-ups on standing poses (choose any two)
  • Suggested: recruit friends and family to be yoga guinea pigs and practice teaching

This feels like kind of a crap-ton of homework this month. Luckily, I’ll be on a train for a good 8-9 hours round trip this weekend, which should help with getting the reading done, and I’ll be traveling to visit with friends who are willing yoga guinea pigs.

I had been upset that last month was Asana Month because I was so busy last month and I wanted more time to actually be able to practice the poses, but I honestly think it worked out for the best: being busy, I had to complete the work when I could, and I couldn’t be a perfectionist about it. This month the homework is less active and more thoughtful, and I am almost as busy this month as I was last month, so I predict insanity to come.