BREATH MECHANICS

BREATH MECHANICS

The Mechanics of the Bellowing Breath

Pranayama. Extending with control the vital life force of breath.

The breath cycle is the foundation of core stability to enable our core system to be dynamic and responsive.

How do we breathe optimally to support our posture and improve global movement?

Belly breathing? Chest breathing? Reverse breathing with the belly sucking in on the inhale? In actuality, none of these are optimal, but this type of breathing often becomes our default pattern in modern hectic lifestyles. How can we change this? Awareness. 

Let’s try a breathing assessment. Kinesthetic awareness of the body is such an important practice that invites connection into how we move and breathe.

Start by lying down supine on the back with knees bent hip width apart. Find your “Triple S” with the back of the Skull, Scapula/Shoulder blades, and Sacrum in alignment so that the domes of the rib cage in the thorax and pelvic floor in the pelvis are stacked. Neutral pelvis. Place one hand on the belly, one hand on the chest and breathe. 

Notice your breath and how it changes the structures in your body. What hand is moving more on the inhale? Do you feel movement in your chest? Belly? Ribs? Neck? Shoulders? Is everything moving at the same time, or is there a gradual sequential change? Is your mouth open or closed? Where is your tongue? Are you breathing in and out through your nose? Is your jaw tight? Is your inhale the same length as your exhale? Do you feel relaxed?  Maybe anxious! Sometimes bringing awareness to the breath can actually feel anxiety provoking, but I invite you to explore your breath and regard it as the ultimate tool that improves how you feel and live within your body. No worries. Your breathing is under autonomic control without you thinking about it, but we want to consider conscious breath so that we may eventually rewire how we breathe to optimize breath when we aren’t thinking about it.  

Let’s discover more and unpeel the layers of how we employ the mechanics of breath in yoga to harness the energy of breathing in a sustainable manner. Posture matters, and postural alignment absolutely makes all the difference in setting up for breathing effectiveness and efficiency. Always start with your “Triple S” and alignment of your domes (glottis, diaphragm, and pelvic floor) as step number one.

In  yoga we practice efficient three dimensional breath, also sometimes described as diaphragmatic breath…which is a bit of a misnomer since ALL breathing involves the diaphragm contracting. Let’s call it 360 degree breath within our central canister.  

Breath mechanics is really all about the balance of pressure management. With pressure change that occurs as the muscle of the diaphragm contracts down on the inhale, the thorax then changes volume, and ultimately shape, as air moves inside the body from a vacuum effect. We can actually direct this pressure change to expand the ribs as they lift up like bucket handles, while the sternum and back move anteriorly and posteriorly like a pump handle. We can also transfer the pressure change below the diaphragm into the abdominal cavity. 

Think of the abdominal canister as a water balloon with a fixed volume in which energy exchange is manifested as a change in pressure causing deformation. Let’s use the pressure change within the chest cavity to expand, lift, and grow instead directing intra-abominal pressure out and down causing bulging and bearing down. 

The exhale occurs passively due to the elasticity of the thorax and lung tissue. However, we can consciously affect exhalation through conscious engagement of the deep core. The transversus abdominis is a corset-like band of horizontal fibers around the abdominal canister that engages in toward the center to move the water balloon of intra-abdominal pressure up to compress the lungs and allow for increased volume removal on the exhale. This also facilitates  coordination with the pelvic floor to gather and lift.

Now what we don’t want is pressure change on the inhale to result in the belly popping out, “belly breathing” (doming/coning) increasing intra abdominal pressure with subsequent load on the abdominal wall (think diastasis recti). We also don’t want pressure mismanagement to cause pelvic floor dysfunction (think prolapse and incontinence).  These unwelcome consequences of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) mismanagement can occur over long periods of time as a result of suboptimal movement, posture and breathing…So let’s empower ourselves and improve our breath to create strength and sturdiness in the foundational constructs of the house we live in. Our body. 

It’s not easy to unlayer years of tension and movement patterns we have developed in the body, but that’s why we show up, move on our mat and connect breath and body.

Here are some tips on how we can begin to deconstruct old foundations and build more sustainable houses.

  1. Avoid Belly Breathing: Belly breathing promotes front expansion of the abdominal wall. The goal with inhalation is to access core engagement with some degree of front abdominal taughtness and tension against load so that the breath may then expand into the back and sides instead of pushing out through the abdomen. At first, we will need to consciously direct this breath finding front, side and back rib cage expansion.
  1. Say No to chest breathing: accessory/secondary muscles of inspiration. Chest breathing is when the upper chest rises and falls heavily with each inhale and exhale through the use of accessory muscles of inspiration (sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, and pectoralis muscles). It is inefficient, limiting, and can lead to rigidity, increased muscle tone, and tension. It also serves to disconnect the breath from functional movement of the body and is associated with stress and fear. Think fight or flight. Thoracic mobility is key, which is the ability to move the rib cage around the axis of the spine while the pelvis remains stable and neutral.
  1. Watch out for paradoxical breathing…which is essentially the opposite of 360 degree breath: This type of limited breathing can lead to a pattern of sucking in the abdomen during the inhale as ribs expand, with ribs subsequently closing down on the exhale leading to a bulge of the lower abdominal area. Often we default to this type of breathing when first trying to connect to our breath consciously using the costal muscles instead of optimizing the pressure changes the diaphragm creates. Postural awareness can help with this type of breathing, as well as lengthening the exhale. Watch for the ribs popping out and the chin jetting up. Let’s talk more about that exhalation…

In a yoga practice we also utilize the malleability of the exhalation within the breath cycle. Lengthening the exhale allows for greater a sense of relaxation and invites the parasympathetic overtones of the nervous system to override the sympathetic.  One can use sounds such as “shhhhhh” or “ffffffff”  to increase resistance with an open glottis that subsequently recruits engagement and connection to the deep core. And we all know the answer to optimizing movement is always “more core!”

Try it. With your knees bent lying supine on your back, alternate marching by flexing the hip and bringing one knee in over the hip at a time. As you flex the hip make your “sound” in a slow, lengthened and controlled manner. Maybe you feel the engagement of your deep abdominals as they pull in and down toward the back of the mat, or your sacrum. It can be a marvelous “ah ha!” moment.

Let me now share with you another secret. We can also consciously manipulate the cycle of breath to allow us to accomplish more complex movement. So just through breathing, we can improve our movement! We achieve this by intentionally directing the energy of the breath. From our stacked core center we lasso the breath energetically as the inhale moves the ribs up and out and creates expansiveness and a feeling of growth as the spine lengthens. Even the low back feels longer…relieving back pain. We can then harness the energetic breath on the exhale and hold it in suspension to provide a foundation of spinal and postural stability. Now you can jump back in plank, add a hop, a lift switch or maybe even take flight upside down in a handstand for the ultimate expression of joy! Balance the breath to feel the energy of life flow. Move better, feel better, be better.

Practice Radiant Movement,

Leigh

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