The American Yoga Association's Easy Does It Yoga : The Safe and Gentle Way to Health and Well-Being
By Alice Christensen
Almost every Yoga exercise includes a specific breath pattern, which is an essential part of making the exercise work for you. Note also that each technique usually begins with three Complete Breaths. This focuses your attention on the breath, which will help to insure that you keep breathing throughout the exercise.
If you have become very inactive due to age or illness, you are probably breathing less deeply than you used to; this contributes to feelings of lethargy and weakness which, in turn, contribute to further inactivity. Unless your muscles are exercised, they lose their elasticity at an alarming rate-and this includes the muscles that you use for breathing, such as your diaphragm and the muscles between your ribs. People who are inactive also usually have poor posture and weak back and stomach muscles, which creates a chronic slouch that also inhibits breathing. This combination of inactivity, slouching, and muscle stiffness causes your body and brain to get much less oxygen than they should, which often results in depression. The natural process of aging also affects the efficiency of your breath-but this inefficiency can be reversed.
In this chapter you will learn how to breathe more completely, using the important diaphragm muscle as well as the many other muscles that your body needs to use for breathing. This technique trains your lungs to fill and empty more fully, allowing more oxygen in and pushing more waste products out. Most students observe that after practicing this technique for some time, they find themselves breathing more deeply at other times of the day as well, because they are more conscious of their breath patterns.
Benefits of Better Breathing
When you have learned how to breathe more effectively, you will feel more alert, energetic, and alive. Training yourself to breathe deeply and completely will also improve your concentration, memory, and stamina.
Many students have told me that they use their deep breathing exercises to help relieve anxiety, anger, fear, or other strong feelings associated with stress. Every one of us faces stressful situations such as family problems, living on a fixed income or with other financial pressures, medical or dental problems, and loneliness. You will discover that your breath is closely related to emotion. Think for a moment about what happens to your breath when you are depressed, angry, afraid, or excited. When you feel depressed, for instance, you find yourself sighing a lot, and your breath becomes slow and shallow. When you are afraid or angry, on the other hand, your breath often speeds up. If you practice breathing techniques regularly, you will find that keeping your breath deeper and more regular will help you to change your mood and feel happier and more in control.
Breathing techniques can be extremely helpful in pain management and sleeping problems as well. If you must undergo uncomfortable medical procedures, or if you suffer from chronic pain, try using the breathing techniques to relax your body and mind and take your mind off the discomfort. A greater regular supply of oxygen will result in more restful sleeping patterns.
Other Factors That Affect Breathing
If you smoke, now is a good time to stop! Not only does smoking contribute to heart disease and cancer, it also inhibits breathing. Longtime smokers often experience shortness of breath and a chronic cough that keeps them from breathing deeply. Bronchitis and emphysema are two serious breathing-related diseases that result from smoking. It's never too late to benefit from giving up tobacco. To help yourself quit, practice breathing techniques several times a day to strengthen your lungs and reduce anxiety.
Being overweight puts a strain on your lungs as well as your heart. Recent surveys show that almost half of the American population is overweight. Although it is probably natural to gain a little weight as we grow older, it is easy to gain too much if you are inactive and lack the energy to change your lifestyle. Many people also eat as a nervous habit, out of fear or anxiety, and often eat less nutritious foods. Breathing techniques help to improve concentration, energy, and willpower, making it easier to change the lifestyle habits that are keeping those extra pounds on.
How to Start Breathing Better
There are several important aspects to learning how to breathe better:
It's very important to keep your back straight during breathing exercises. Practice the techniques sitting in a straight chair, not leaning against the chair back. (After you have learned the technique, you can practice it anytime, anywhere.) The position will be more comfortable if there is a slight downward slant from your hips to your knees; try sitting on the edge of the chair and tucking your toes under slightly to achieve this position. If you tend to slouch due to weak muscles, you can practice the breathing with your chair pushed sideways against a wall (see photo). Sit sideways in the chair with hips and shoulders touching the wall; this will prevent your back from slouching forward during the exhalation.
You can also practice breathing techniques while lying flat in bed or on the floor, with knees bent. Don't put a pillow' under your head or neck (unless medically necessary).
If you have access to a pool, you may wish to try practicing your breathing exercises sitting on a step in the pool so that your stomach and part of your chest are submerged. This will increase the resistance and strengthen your breathing muscles considerably.