Exploring the breath – Part 1

04 december 2019 | Av Eleonora Ramsby Herrera

How does your diaphragm work – and how does your posture affect your breathing? This first article of two about the breath – explains how the breath functions works and how to breathe in a more easeful way.

Exploring the breath: A two-part article series by Eleonora Ramsby Herrera

This series consists of two articles, which discuss the practice of breathing in yoga, and its effects on our overall well-being. The first article introduces the Sanskrit word Prana and the connection between Prana and the breath. It explains how the breath functions and how to breathe in a more easeful way that is in accordance with the body’s natural function. The second article is a continuation that explains the practice of pranayama and its effects on mental health. 

Exploring the breath: Part 1

Learning how to breathe – Introduction
In yoga philosophy, our breath can be seen as the physical manifestation of prana. Prana can be considered the life force of the universe and can be translated as “to breathe forth” (Rosen, 2017). Through the breath we receive the force of energy that brings life to our being; without the breath, there can be no life. This article highlights the function of the breath and how to cultivate a healthy breath that is in harmony with the physical body, both in everyday life and during yoga practice.

The diaphragm: The conductor of breath

Our main breathing muscle is called the diaphragm. What follows is an explanation of where the diaphragm is located in the body, how it works and why. It is important to be aware of the positioning of the diaphragm and its movement in order to understand how the breath moves and what happens in our body as we breathe. This awareness also informs us how our posture can affect our breath and how we can improve both our breath and our posture, to cultivate freer breathing.

The diaphragm is the muscle that drives our breath. Imagine the diaphragm as a thin circular mushroom-like cap that sits between the thoracic and the abdominal cavity. It is attached along the inner rim of the ribcage (cartilage of the bottom six ribs) and the front of the spine (anterior part of vertebrae L1-L3), where it contracts and relaxes continually to keep the breath flowing in and out of the lungs.

On an inhalation the diaphragm contracts downwards, causing the lungs to expand as they fill with air. The expansion of the lungs results in the expansion of the ribcage. The downward pressure of the diaphragm simultaneously causes the abdomen to relax and bulge out. On an exhalation, the diaphragm lifts upwards towards the base of the lungs, causing the abdomen to subtly engage and draw back in the direction of the spine and, as air leaves the lungs, the thoracic cavity to decrease in volume.

Good to know about the diaphragm

  • The circular shape of the diaphragm causes the breath to move three-dimensionally across the front, side, and back of the chest and abdomen. The breath does not just happen at the frontside of the body.
  • The position of the diaphragm causes the movement of a natural and uncontrolled breath, both in the chest and abdominal cavity. The breath does not just happen in one place.
  • When we inhale, the diaphragm moves down, causing the abdomen to relax and bulge out. We do not keep our abdominals tight and “sucked in” on a constant basis. If we do, it will restrict the breath.
  • When we exhale, the diaphragm moves up, causing the abdomen to slightly contract and draw inwards; the spine lengthens and lifts while receiving support from the abdominals. Emphasising this movement helps you to “grow taller” on the exhale.
  • The breath can be seen as a shape-changing movement (Kaminoff and Matthews, 2012). Thus, the breath can be understood, seen and felt as a rhythmically pulsating force of energy. The breath moves the body. Thus, the body is never stagnant or kept in a fixed shape.

The posture’s influence on breathing

The movement of the body also impacts the breath. If our shoulders and chest slouch forward, it causes tension in the surrounding muscles, while compressing the ribcage forward and down, causing tension in the muscles in between the ribs. A shortened and rounded spine compresses the diaphragm and the abdomen, which limits the movement of the diaphragm and inhibits our capacity to breathe with ease.

If the diaphragm is not able to do its job properly, the surrounding muscles around the chest and shoulders start to “take over”, causing the breath to become superficial, which can create tension in the neck, shoulders and chest. This can trigger the sympathetic nervous system, leaving you in a state of stress.

Good to know about the breath

  • You can re-train and improve your breathing pattern by improving your posture.
  • Stretching the muscles surrounding the neck, shoulders, chest and ribcage can help “free up your breath” so that you can breathe with more ease.
  • Strengthening the postural muscles around your back can help you maintain a long spine and an upright posture.
  • The breath is not constant, it changes all the time depending on the body’s activity and your emotional state.
  • A common misconception, especially in yoga classes, is that the breath should be kept at a similar pace at all times i.e. that if we can keep our breath constant, no matter how strenuous our yoga practice is, then we are “doing it right”. This is not the case. A healthy breath adapts to the body’s metabolic needs. This means that your breath will adapt depending on what physical movements and activities that you do. If you are resting in the couch reading a book, your breath will be quiet and hardly noticeable. If you have just finished a massive sprint, then you will naturally be gasping for air, taking quick shallow breaths. Your breath does not remain the same.
  • Your breath also changes depending on how you move your body, and this becomes apparent when practising yoga movements.

Good to know about breathing and different movements

  • When practising deep twists where the abdomen is compressed to a great degree, your breath will become restricted, causing the breath to shorten and become shallower.
  • When practising backbends, the pull of the spine on the diaphragm, and the deep stretch of the muscles of the chest and ribcage makes it harder to take deep breaths. Shorter shallow breaths are therefore necessary.
  • If you’re resting on your back, your postural muscles can relax making it easier to take deeper slower breath with less effort.
  • If you are sitting upright on the floor, your postural muscles are required to engage more to resist gravity and keep the spine upright. This makes it more effortful to breathe.
  • If you do abdominal work such as planks or sit-ups, you allow the inhalation to release the contraction in the abdomen, and contract the abdominals on the exhalation.

Easy body – easy breath, and vice versa

We now know that our breath moves our body, and that the movement of our body affects how we breathe, as well as the sensation of the breath. If we can approach our breath and movement as two co-existing forces, we will start to notice that they both always work together. Thus, the key is to cultivate a harmonious relationship between breath and body, to experience greater freedom and ease in ourselves as a whole. One breath at a time.

In my next article, Exploring the breath: part 2, I will introduce the practice of pranayama and its effects on mental health.

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Eleonora Ramsby Herrera

Eleonora teaches Hatha Yoga, Meditation & Trauma adapted Yoga. She has taught yoga since 2008. She is a Senior Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals (UK) and registered as an E-RYT 500 through Yoga Alliance.

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