Breathing into different areas of your body
Something you may commonly hear in a yoga class is to send your breath to a certain area of your body. Over the years many people have told me they have a hard time visualizing this process; but when you realize that every cell in your body “breathes” it may start to make that connection easier. Every cell in your body takes in oxygen and gives of carbon dioxide (intra-cellular breathing), just like every cell in your body inhales nourishment and exhales waste to and from its surrounding tissues.
The Power of the Mind
Prana follows thought; I have read about tests where they hook up yogis to all kinds of monitors and have them mentally control different functions in their body, using their mind to slow down or affect heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, and brain activity — yogis were able to slow down their brain activity to that of the deep dreamless state while still be awake and conscious. And I have read of tests done on body builders/weight lifters where they hook up them up to monitors and have them perform an exercise not thinking about the muscle they are using, then again perform the exercise putting their mind into the muscle they are working — there was increased muscle activity when the mind was involved in the exercise. So its not too ethereal to say that when you are breathing into a certain area of your body you are using your mind to control your body functions. When you use your mind to focus on a certain area of your body you can improves the cellular exchanges in that area thereby speeding up a healing process or just to have the cells work more efficiently.
Don’t worry about body breathing to all your cells! that could be a little overwhelming, just choose an area in your body and focus on it. Don’t worry about doing it wrong or right! Every cell in your body knows how to breathe whether you think about it or listen to the cells or not 😉
Rest Pose Meditation – Using the Power of Your Mind
Here is a nice rest pose meditation that uses the power of your mind. These are excerpts from Beryl Bender Birch’s (my first teacher) book “Power Yoga”. It’s a nice way to use your mind to help keep the systems and organs of your body healthy and clean — although the last part always makes me giggle when I read it to a class:
Settle in and align yourself for rest pose. Are you fairly symmetrical? Check your hip bones, heel bones, shoulders, are your bones spaced evenly? After arranging your superficial structure of your bones and muscles, sink a bit deeper.
Enter your respiratory and circulatory systems. You can start by entering through your nose and traveling along your breath to your lungs. Bump around inside your lungs like a helium balloon. Hop on an oxygen molecule and squeeze through the walls of the lungs and travel to your heart. Imagine the passages into and out of your heart; see them as clear and smooth and free of debris and obstacles. See all the little trap doors swinging easily and functioning without resistance or stress.
From there be pumped out of your heart and sent tumbling into the vast networks of rivers, streams, and creeks that make up your circulatory system. Construct a little boat or raft for yourself and set out down the main artery leading from your heart. <<Although I have been told the pressure in the arteries is so high that this would be more like white water rafting 😉 >> As you travel downstream, notice the condition of the “banks” of the river. Look for debris or litter. If you see any , then imagine a big trash collecting “boat” (a white blood cell) traveling down the river, sucking up the debris and transporting it to the recycling station. Imagine that all the walls of the blood vessels are plaque free — pink and smooth. The banks of the river and pristine and untrampled. See a beautiful and healthy environment. Notice the branches and tributaries of the main river that go off to the various organs and how well organized the delivery of supplies and removal of waste are along these passageways.
Sink deeper still — into the nervous system. The scenery changes. Now you will see great networks of tracks and trails and pathways. Observe how well maintained they are. Polished, shiny stainless steel. No rust. No broken tracks. Check the connections, the intersections and the switching stations of the countless nadis (channels). Look around for static or interference, especially if you have had a stressful day. If you find any impediment that is creating poor reception, do some rewiring and breathe a little prana to that stretch of track.
Settle deeper still — into the digestive and elimination systems. Now you get to roam around in your stomach and get a look at that last meal, close up. This can be frightening or rewarding. If you have been eating nutrient dense food and lots of vegetables, things should look pretty good, matter that is easy to digest and move along the system. No problems. But lets suppose you had a bagel for breakfast, a cheese sandwhich for lunch, and pizza or a hunk of beef for dinner. You’ll be lucky if you can make it through from one end of your stomach to the other, and you’ll have a hard time squeezing through your intestines. The intestines will be clogged up like the local expressway at rush hour . . . anyway pay attention to your intestines. They can bring you years of joy or misery — its up to your mouth.
More Ways to breathe into your body
Here are some of the ways I like to work with my breath in my body while practicing:
- Attach your inhale to your mula bandha–each inhale connects you to your inner lift of mula bandha
- Attach your exhale to your uddiyana bandha–each exhale connects you to the lift of your abdomen moving under your rib cage.
In Downward Facing Dog
- Breathe into the space behind your heart. Especially in Surya Namaskar B, focus on breathing all around your heart.
Playing with the breath in Paschimattanasana:
- in Paschimattanasana A breathe from the base of your spine to your crown
- in Paschimattanasana B breathe from your crown to the base of your spine
- in Paschimattanasana C inhale base to crown, exhale crown to base
- or if you feel particularly tight, trying breathing into your hamstrings or lower back
- Breathe from your toes to your crown. Feel your breath sweep up your entire body.
In Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimattanasana
- while maintaining tone in you bandhas focus on breathing around your organs, feel your diaphragm descend as you inhale and press your organs against the upper lift of your bandhas improving the wringing out of toxins
In Trianaga and Marichyasana A & B
- Breathe into your hips
In Janu Sirsasana A,B,C
- Your body is a mudra, focus on your hands to feet connection, head to knee connection, lift mula bandha and breathe up and down your spine.
In Marichyasana C,D
- deep breathing in twists can be challenging as what needs to expand to inhale (chest and ribs) are being compressed by your thigh. Focus on breathing into the area of your ribs that is free to move, for example when twisting to the right breathe into your left ribs and feel them expand.
In any posture breathe:
- into any areas of pain or tightness
- arch your ribs up high (carefully and intelligently!) Inhale deeply and expand all your muscles of respiration, particularly the intercostals (muscles between your ribs). If they are flexible it will allow you deeper breathing.
- exhale deeply and suck your abdomen in under your ribs. breathe deep and slow. Breathing while inverted is especially good for your diaphragm and breathing. While inverted the weight of your abdominal organs lays on your diaphragm, as you inhale your diaphragm has to “lift that weight” and push upward, strengthening your best breathing muscle. As you exhale the weight of your abdominal organs pushes your diaphragm down getting you a nice deep exhale, the deeper you exhale the better your next inhale.
- Inhale up your spine, exhale push your breath/energy up your spine
In Uth Pluthi
- pump your breath as bellows, clearing out your lungs. This strong breath also pulls more prana across our ol factory sense in our nose — where our sense of smell is and also where there is more prana receptors, when we pull air up around this area we absorb more prana from the atmosphere.
In Rest Pose
- Scan your body, check to see if your hip bones press into the floor in a similar way, your heel bones and your shoulders, are you fairly symmetrical? Then scan for a particularly tight or sore area, see if you can send your breath to that area of your body, send your breath as a healing balm — when i do this I feel tingling and warmth in that area.
Use your breath to calm your mind and energize your body. Putting your attention on your breathing in this way during your practice will improve not only how the breath affects our body (more on that below/next week) but will also keep out of those states where we push ourselves too much in the asana and increase our risk of injury and add stress to our bodies and minds!
So why is deep breathing so beneficial for us? I have done some research on the science behind breathing. Set aside all the studies and data and it comes down to these two benefits; the increase of oxygen to the cells and the calming effect deep breathing has on our nervous system. Quote from one of the articles: “Yoga participants learn how to deal with distractions and stress without having an emotionally stimulating physiological response.”
I did not share the research about the increase of oxygen to the cells — too much science and this topic is already too long! But I will share one of the benefits of our style of breathing during asana — some call it ujjayi, Pattabhi Jois called it loud breathing — is that is spirals the air deeper into the lungs where there is more oxygen (the capillaries in the lower lobes of the lungs have more oxygen) and the resistance we put on the breath slows it down in the lungs and allows more time for gas exchanges.
I found an article written by Len Kravitz, PhD. I used to take his workshops in the early 90’s when i was studying the body (in the early 90’s i was a personal trainer and fitness teacher and was just starting to get into yoga). I learned a lot from his seminars and was happy to see him writing about yoga. I will share some of his findings and the link for the entire article.
Note: He uses the word pranayama to describe the deep breathing that we do in yoga class — to me pranayama means LACK OF breathing! So I would prefer to use the term deep breathing or yogic breathing instead of pranayama breathing.
Here are some excerpts from his research:
The yoga purpose of breath training is not to over-ride the body’s autonomic systems; although there is clear evidence that pranayama breathing techniques can effect oxygen consumption and metabolism (Jerath et al., 2006) <<by metabolism he means the exchanges of gases at the celluar level — the uptake of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide.>> In fact, much of the aim of pranayama breathing appears to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its excitatory dominance. Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders (Jerath et al., 2006). Jerath and colleagues add that investigations regarding stress and psychological improvements support evidence that pranayama breathing alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological profile. <<part of the article states that breathing automatically is controlled by the medulla part of the brain, while conscious breathing is controlled by the cortex part of the brain . . . and then they state “its not fully understood how these controls of respiration are linked” . . .>>
<< A side note about something I’ve read about regarding deep breathing with support of the bandhas — the lift of the bandhas puts pressure on the VAGUS nerve. The vagus nerve goes from your gut to your brain and is responsible for that “gut feeling”. Some of the latest research says our gut is our 2nd brain, when you put pressure on your vagus nerve by contracting your abdominals it relieves stress and anxiety. This is an other good reason to breathe with bandha support 😉 >>
Slow pranayama breathing techniques show the most practical and physiological benefit, yet the underlying mechanism how they work is not fully elucidated in the research (Jerath et al., 2006). However, Jerath and colleagues hypothesize that “the voluntary, slow deep breathing functionally resets the autonomic nervous system through stretch-induced inhibitory signals and hyperpolarization (slowing electrical action potentials) currents…which synchronizes neural elements in the heart, lungs, limbic system and cortex.” As well, investigations have demonstrated that slow breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, thus slowing certain physiological processes down that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells (Jerath et al., 2006).
Optional Breathing: Activating the Diaphragm
The everyday experiences of breathing for most untrained individuals is much more inconsistent than one would assume. Practices in yoga often first teach individuals to observe their own breathing to ultimately familiarize the student with the sensations of respiration. Thus, one meaningful aspect in learning breathing techniques is the awareness in the difference in smooth, even breathing to erratic breathing. Modifications in respiratory patterns come naturally to some individuals after one lesson, however, it may take up to six months to replace bad habits, and ultimately change the way one breathes (Sovik, 2000). The general rule, often noted in studies, and particularly observed by Gallego et al. (2001) was that if a voluntary act is repeated, “learning occurs, and the neurophysiological and cognitive processes underpinning its control may change.” Gallego et al. continue that while some changes can be made, the need for longer-term studies is warranted to better understand the attention demanding phases involved with these breathing changes.
Although the diaphragm is one of the primary organs responsible for respiration, it is believed by some yogics to be under functioning in many people (Sovik, 2000). Thus, there is often emphasis placed upon diaphragmatic breathing, rather than the use of the overactive chest muscles.
The research is very clear that breathing exercises (e.g. pranayama breathing) can enhance parasympathetic (inhibit neural responses) tone, decrease sympathetic (excitatory) nervous activity, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health (Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004). Health and fitness professionals can utilize this knowledge and regularly incorporate proper slow breathing exercises with their students and clients in their classes and training sessions.
and finally, yoga breathing is considered “an intermediary between the mind and body (Sovik, 2000) It is also equally worthy to observe that breath awareness was originally developed to the movements being done by the yogi to achieve the joining of the mind, body, and spirit in search for self-awareness, health and spiritual growth . . . more on this below . . .
“the science of breathing” by Len Kravitz, PhD and Sarah Novotny (http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html)
Self Awareness and Spiritual Growth through Breathing
Your body holds the truth, your mind only speculates . . . other benefits to body breathing:
When you are able to connect with different areas of your body via your breath this helps put more yoga into your yoga . . . yoga means union — not union to a bunch of yoga poses. yoga practices are designed to unite our body, heart, mind, spirit, and emotions. By this we will “understand” our feelings and emotions (and issues!) better, we will get to know ourselves openly and honestly.
You’ve heard me say over the years . . . the issues are in the tissues . . . meaning our body holds our stories for us. All our experiences in our lives all have purpose, its just sometimes our mind labels them as bad, so we block the lesson. When we block the lesson our body has to store it for us until we are ready to accept it. When you focus on breathing into a certain area of your body, you might be tapping into some stored emotions or feelings; which can be very useful. As this story opens up to you again, you get another chance to put it good use and learn whatever lesson you were to learn from it but weren’t previously ready for. You know all those little aches and pains we are always dealing with? If we store our emotions too long they manifest into our aches and pains. So by breathing into those areas you just may tap into some undiscovered lesson . . .
Want to finish all this research with a quote by Pattabhi Jois:
Pattabhi Jois says there are three types of disease; body disease, mind disease, and nervous system disease. Of these three, mind disease is the worst! When the mind is diseased the entire body is diseased! So first you give medicine to your mind–mind medicine is breathing and yoga.
Mind medicine is yoga practice with the correct breathing system–thats it!