We all (hopefully) know how important breathing is to us human beings. If we’re not getting that much needed oxygen, something’s going wrong, yes?
But are you aware of the strong connection between yoga and the power of breath? Read on to learn more.
Many of us even know that different levels of breath help us through challenges – we tell those in a panic to take long, deep breaths to help them calm down, most voice artists (singers, actors, voiceover professionals etc) are trained in both diaphragmatic breathing as well as how to best breathe when they’re using their voice so much. And then there are athletes who must have not only the cardio training to help them through but also the technique and timing of their breath that is best for their bodies in their chosen sport.
If you look at professional swimmers, or if you yourself have ever tried doing a few laps in the pool, you’ll know how effective it is at working both the cardiopulmonary system as well as ensuring deep, timed breaths are taken (to avoid swallowing the whole pool while you’re at it).
Yoga means ‘union’, and this is generally attributed to the union between breath, body and spirit. Focusing on your breathing is often the first cue teachers give in a class – ‘connect with and deepen your breath’ – before any movements or poses even begin to take place. But why is this so important? And what does yoga even do beyond that to help us breathe deeper?
The Physical Benefits of Yoga for Breathing
When we do any kind of work out, whether we’re in a gym, running along the beach, walking the dog, or coming to the yoga mat to practice physically, we’re working our muscles. Muscles contain a memory so that they can be trained to handle things that weren’t necessarily possible before.
Your lungs respond in similar ways that your muscles do, in the sense that the more they’re used properly, the more they’re capable of. And then there is the diaphragm, which is actually a muscle itself, and gets stronger each time we breathe diaphragmatically.
The lungs are pretty squeezed in where they sit though. There are other organs around them but most restricting is the ribcage itself. The flow and movement of yoga along with particular poses helps to stretch and open up the muscles in the chest and the intercostal muscles of the ribcage. When these muscles are tight they restrict the lungs’ ability to expand, because the ribcage isn’t able to move with them.
In a general vinyasa (flow) yoga class, the whole body gets to enjoy opening up throughout the course of the class, but there are several poses that are excellent ‘go-tos’ if you’re wanting to consciously create more space and expansion around your chest and torso.
If you’re looking to gently expand and open up through the chest while stimulating your lungs so they’re encouraged to breathe deeper, Sphinx, Cobra (Bhujangasana) or Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) are great options when done safely (paying particular care to the lower back).
Any variation of side bends such as Seated Moon help to stretch those ribcage muscles, creating more space for the lungs. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) and Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) are my personal favourite all-rounders to help me open up into a stretch that I can control the depth of. These encourage the opening of the front of the chest, as well as a lengthening (each in their own way) of the sides of the body. I breathe deeper just thinking about them!
How the Breath Supports us Mentally and Emotionally
This is just so important. Breathing shallowly and/or quickly contributes hugely to higher levels of stress, anxiety, or irritation being felt in the body. The nervous system responds to this type of breath by switching us into fight or flight mode, detecting a perceived threat, even if the reality is quite different.
While this reaction can serve us very well in certain circumstances, to constantly live in this survival mode is not healthy nor is it enjoyable. It can negatively impact our decision-making abilities, perception and instincts, relationships, productivity, focus, levels of happiness and contentedness… The list goes on and on.
Yet when we practice yoga we’re teaching our bodies how to still be able to respond and breathe in challenging situations (challenging poses can often bring up the same feelings as when we meet certain challenges off the mat).
We are also training our breath to know a new default. It may take some time and it always serves us to check in with our breath with no matter how practiced we are, but like any muscle or habit, the more we practice that deep, open breathing the more naturally it comes.
The nervous system flips to a calmer state, which then serves us in the ‘outside’ world when something unexpected comes up, as it will in life.
In these moments we find we can breathe deeper, getting more oxygen in our bodies and to our brain, so that we can be clearer and more rational in moments that can be experienced as stressful. The practice of this breath helps us physiologically shift our body’s stress response.
And we get to enjoy more of our lives the more we practice this.
If you’d like to know more about the science behind the relationship between yoga and the power of breath, see here.