A Woman's Book of Yoga: Embracing Our Natural Life Cycles
By Machelle M. Siebel, M.D., Hari Kaur Khalsa
Diaphragmatic Breathing - Opening the Belly
and Discovering the Breath
Long, Deep Breathing is the foundation of your yoga practice. This breath feeds your blood with precious oxygen, relaxes you, and heals you. The Long, Deep Breath is slow and controlled. You begin learning the Long, Deep Breath by learning diaphragmatic breathing and thus retraining your body to breathe naturally.
Begin by lying on your back and place both hands on your belly, fingers touching. Relax your belly and your chest. Inhale through your nose and feel the natural expansion of your abdomen. This lifting action will cause the fingers to separate. Exhale through your nose, completely, a slow exhale. Your abdomen will relax and your fingers will return to their original position. You will also feel the expansion of your rib cage. Try to feel this expansion as a wide opening, instead of lifting upward and tensing your shoulders. It may help to visualize your spine as a glass and your breath as light. Inhale and pour the breath, "filling the glass" from bottom up. exhale, "emptying the glass" from top to bottom. Try several times, being sure to relax your neck and jaw.
The expansion of your abdomen on your inhale indicates that you are using your diaphragm muscle, located about an inch above your belly button, to help draw breath into the lungs. You may need to exaggerate the expansion of your belly if your breath is shallow until your breath is smooth and deep, accompanied by the natural expansion of belly, lower back, and rib cage. As you begin to breathe in this natural manner, pay attention to the details of your breathing. Feel your lower back expand as you inhale. With each inhalation, your belly rises, your lower back expands out, and your rib cage expands. This will release tension from your shoulders and neck, allowing a full breath to occur and expanding your lung capacity.
Long, Deep Breathing is done primarily through your nose. Breathing through your nose warms, humidifies, and filters the air entering your lungs, so that you deliver the highest quality air to your lungs in the most efficient manner. Breathing consciously through your nose instead of your mouth will slow your breath rate, thereby facilitating higher awareness and a more relaxed state.
As you practice yoga this will become the natural way you breathe all the time. Watch any young child and you will understand how natural Long, Deep Breathing is. As we age, stress often tightens up the belly and creates the habit of breathing using the large chest muscles. Breathing correctly gives your body a precious gift. Practice Long, Deep Breathing slowly and enjoy its many benefits!
Segmented Breathing - Managing Your Moods
Segmented Breathing is a way to refine your breathing and manage your moods. Take a few long, deep breaths first, making sure you are breathing diaphragmatically. Sit straight in a chair or sit comfortably cross-legged (called Easy Pose) on a Hat surface. While you are learning, you can also practice this as you lie on your back. As you inhale, break your breath into four equal segments (sniffs). Hold this breath in for a few seconds. Then exhale, breaking the breath again into four equal segments (sniffs). Hold that breath out for a few seconds. Continue inhaling in four equal segments and exhaling in four equal segments. It may take you a little while to equalize the segments and to have a complete inhale and exhale. Next, inhale in four equal segments and exhale in one long, continuous breath. Repeat this pattern a few times and feel the difference. This four/four breath, intended primarily for relaxation, is very effective in managing emotional and mental states. It also will help increase your strength, vitality, and mental focus. Segmented Breathing is a yogic gem. Once you learn it, you will have a useful tool for managing your moods.
Breath of Fire-Beating Stress
This breath technique is a super energizer and stress buster. Breath of Fire works deep in your solar plexus, located at the base of your rib cage, to engage your parasympathetic nervous system and to return it to balance, giving you strength and raising your self-esteem. Breath of Fire powerfully breaks the habit your nervous system may have developed of entering into and remaining in the stress response. Other benefits believed to come from Breath of Fire include detoxification of the blood, increased energy at the solar plexus (the third chakra, the energy center that helps energize your entire body, mind, and spirit), improved digestion, strengthened adrenal function, and enhanced mental clarity.
Breath of Fire is a rapid breath generated from the diaphragm area with a powerful but gentle pulse. Begin by lying on the floor on your back or sitting in a comfortable position. Take a few long, deep breaths. Breath of Fire is very rapid, but it is not hyperventilation. To learn how to manipulate your muscles for Breath of Fire, first inhale a slow, deep breath and suspend, or hold it without straining (see the next section). As you suspend your breath, pump your belly in and out a few times-these are the muscles you should use to breathe during this exercise. Exhale and relax. Next, stick out your tongue and pant like a dog. Just let go of your intellectualization of the process and breathe! This allows you to get the feeling of moving your navel point and using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, both of which are necessary for Breath of Fire.
Once you are familiar with the feeling of the muscles for Breath of Fire, you may begin the practice. Sit in a comfortable position or lie on your back on the floor. Take a few long, deep breaths. Begin breathing in and out rapidly, with one sniff in for inhalation and one sniff out for the exhalation (this is similar to one segment from Segmented Breathing). Place equal emphasis on the inhalation and the exhalation, keeping your breath even and rhythmic. Your rate of breaths should be about two to three breaths per second.
Practice Breath of Fire for short periods of time, alternating with relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. With practice, you will become comfortable with Breath of Fire and energized by this technique. You should feel comfortable and relaxed while doing this breath.
Note: Breath of Fire should be practiced only very lightly during menstruation, and not at all during pregnancy and the first three months after delivery.
Suspending Your Breath-Achieving Stillness
You can affect your autonomic nervous system by consciously changing your breath rate. Changing your breath rate will bring about a shift in your physiological and mental states. Your "normal" breath rate is about twenty breaths per minute. During yoga practice, you bring the breath down to about eight breaths per minute, automatically entering a meditative state.
At the end of many exercises, you will be instructed to suspend your breath briefly before you relax. Suspending your breath is like holding your breath in or out but without the strain or tension you normally feel in your chest or shoulders. This process stimulates your experience of the Still Point, a basic goal of yoga and meditation.
To suspend your breath on the inhalation, inhale and retain your breath, keeping your chest expanded. If you feel any tension, let some breath out and try again. Remember to feel relaxed, even as you retain your breath. To suspend your breath on the exhalation, exhale completely, maintaining a straight spine. Whether suspending your breath in or out, relax your shoulders back and focus your eyes at your brow point. Become still and feel light and open. Hold your concentration gently at the brow in stillness. When suspending your breath after the physical experience of the exercises and the repetition of mantras, you will experience the Still Point. This stillness is in contrast to the movements just completed; it is this contrast that, in part, allows you to enter the quiet, meditative state of mind. This experience of stillness will become deeper when you apply the Root Lock, described later in this chapter.