I’ll admit I’ve never been the proudest breather in the yoga room but I’ve spent years working on it. I thought I had it down – recognizing that lovely ease of breath as I nestled in for savasana after a practice felt like proof of a job well done – deep, satisfying breath. And yet, a while back, the world, with its ever-generous nature, provided me with a new nudge toward discovery of balanced breath and all it can offer.
Enter Emily, a warm, enthusiastic, attentive and effusive student who turns up class after class with her mat in hand and a smile across her face. She asks questions, shares insights and brings joy to the studio and, yet, a certain pesky behavior persisted in her practice. Emily yawns during class. Repeatedly. She yawns through our opening classwork, in instructive pauses and in our lead up to savasana. During exertion, the yawning often ceases and my best guess is that she’s holding her breath during the toughest sequences in class. I also noted that during breathing practices, Emily would appear distracted, gaze out the window and generally check out of the instruction. This was the only time she demonstrated anything less than full engagement in class. All of these signs pointed to a breath dysfunction and a habit so deeply ingrained that Emily wasn’t even aware of its impact on her experience.
I began hunting through my textbooks, Yoga Tune Up® notes and internet research for lessons on breathing to see if I could help unravel this insidious habit that was living beneath the surface of Emily’s awareness. And, as often happens, my student became my teacher. I found that my very own breathing patterns were less than ideal. I discovered that my breath hovered within my chest during times of disconnection with my body – times when I was less aware or overwhelmed. My yogi-pride didn’t love these new findings but my diaphragm sure did!
What first revealed itself was a pattern of high and tight breathing. High and tight is a description for a boy’s very short haircut that doesn’t offer much movement because the hair is too short to shift. In the case of high and tight breath, the inhale reaches only as deep as the upper chest and loiters in the front ribs as though it has nowhere else to go, high in the chest and tight around the ribs. As this becomes habitual, it creates an unwelcome response in the body – jacking up the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the fight-or-flight response in the body (The Roll Model, p. 158).
The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration and is knit along the inner edges of your ribcage – serving as the cap for your abdominal cavity and the floor of your thoracic cavity. This dual positioning coupled with the plunging action of the muscle during inhale should create sensation in both the chest and the abdomen. For day-to-day activity, “breathing should be slow, smooth and constant, moderate in the amount of air taken in and involve three-dimensional movement of the rib cage”. (Mary Bond, The New Rules of Posture, p. 83) This high and tight breath I was observing in Emily and, at times, in myself was eliminating the three dimensional movement in the ribcage, providing only minimum amount of air and producing rapid, shallow breath. According to Mary Bond in “The New Rules of Posture”, “many people move only the front of the rib cage when they breathe…. expanding only in the front shortens and tightens muscles along the spine.” Unfortunately, this causes a loss of sensation in the backside of the torso during the respiratory cycle and leaves the individual exhausted and under-oxygenated.
For Emily, it was important to begin to sense the breath at the back of the ribs, awaken the muscles of the posterior ribcage and train the breath cycle to become three dimensional, slower and smoother.
Later this week, I’ll outline the tools we employed to move away from high and tight breath and toward deep and domed breath using self massage, awareness of movement in her back ribs and practice, practice, practice.