One of the foundations of yoga practise is learning to breathe. Breathing is so funny because we DO this all day long. It can seem strange to stop and practice something that is already happening! However, these are the best kind of practices. Paying attention to what is happening inside ourselves and developing deep, intimate relationships with those movements.
Most people never breathe more than the barest minimum required to bring oxygen into our lungs. Have you noticed how shallow your breath is usually? There are considerable benefits to breathing more deeply, more profoundly, as a dedicated practice. These benefits help to support your nervous system, your heart and your lungs and even can exercise important muscles in and around your chest and core.
So what are the physical benefits of breathing, and how is that done?
I like to teach something called natural breathing. In yoga, we usually cultivate fancy breathing techniques with mysterious-sounding names and complex theories. These practices can be fun, but natural breathing forms an essential foundation for the later practices and is all you need to make massive shifts and changes to your physical, mental, and emotional experiences.
It’s best to try natural breathing by lying comfortably on your back, though eventually, it’s essential to sit upright and try because your relationship to gravity changes and you can feel your breath in your whole ribcage and spine.
When you lie on your back make sure your knees are bent: you can place your feet on the ground wider than your hips and rest your knees together, you can prop a pillow or roll up a thick blanket behind your knees, or you can even swing your legs up onto a chair, a wall, or a couch.
If your neck is uncomfortable, you can even prop a small pillow, towel, or blanket under your head.
Spend a minute, just feeling your breath, not chaining anything, not manipulating anything, just noticing how your breath moves in your body.
Is it all in your chest? Or all in your belly? Do you only breathe up into your front ribs? When you exhale, do you push your belly button down into your low back?
This is valuable information. Many of us are not supporting our physical bodies when we breathe. And breath is DESIGNED to support us physically! For example, if you are only breathing into the front of your chest, but you don’t feel any movement in the side of your ribcage, then you are limiting your breathing capacity.
Place your hands on the sides of your ribs. With your fingers pointed toward your heart and your elbows facing outward. Press your hands into your side ribs and then feel your breath pressing back! Expand your side ribs out when you inhale and feel those ribs coming back toward your centre when you exhale.
Do this practice a few times. Start to expand your breath into the SIDES of your body. There is so much untapped space there to breathe! Also, you are exercising your core when you do this. Forget crunches, breathe deeply, and you’ll begin to feel how much more function and strength you can build in your core.
Begin to pay attention to your exhales: if you find that you are pushing your belly button down into your lower back when you exhale you will want to change this pattern. Your low belly should not push down to the ground when you breathe out. You should feel a drawing back and up toward your heart on your exhale. This is much easier to do when you have a full inhalation that makes use of your side ribs, so try the two practices together:
Inhale to draw your ribs wide side-to-side, and exhale to allow your belly to move back and up. You can imagine that you are taking a little comb and combing your exhalation up the length of your spine from your tailbone to your heart. This is a deeply nourishing way to exhale. Move your belly up toward your heart rather than back into your spine.
This is natural breathing! You are just following the natural movements of your muscles as they are designed to breathe.
If you sit upright, you can feel the difference with this breath.
You can place your hands on your outer ribs again and feel for your breath drawing outward in all directions. Not only forward into your chest behind your breastbone, but also out to the sides and into the back of your heart.
Eventually, you’ll let your arms drop onto the sides of your chest and feel the three dimensions of your in-breath at your chest. That space is necessary so that your exhalation can release pressure up and out of your pelvis by combing upward toward your heart.
Inhale to open out in all directions from your heart.
Exhale to draw your breath back up your spine toward your heart.
Inhale to expand the heart out.
Exhale to return to the heart.
Inhale to move your heart energy out into the world.
Exhale to return your energy back into your heart.
See how the physicality of your natural breathing becomes a moving prayer that connects your heart to the world around you and then returns back to your heart centre. This is the most profound kind of moving prayer that we can offer ourselves and the space around us. And it only requires that you breathe according to the natural design of your body.
You may even notice when you sit upright how much your LEGS have been trying to help your CHEST to breathe! Our legs try to hold up our spine. Let your legs relax. Sit upright on a pillow or a blanket so that your upper thighs can soften and relax. Then ask them to soften and relax some more. When your legs stop trying to hold you up, then your spine will start to hold itself up.
You are building strength. Core strength. Real core strength.
So go slowly, because you are exercising. Start with just a few minutes on your back and then expand that practice. Later try it upright. Then maybe you start to notice yourself getting stronger, little by little until one day you are breathing naturally and easefully. You may find the strength that has always been there in your breath available to you. You may discover the moving prayer of your breathing supported by that strength. You may find that your body has been helping you all along.