“When you were born your whole body breathed. Every cell quivered with the vitality of the breath. Every bone, muscle, and organ moved with every breath. Every nerve was energized by it, every blood cell carried it, and every moment took as its meter the phrasing of your breath. Today, most of us have forgotten what it feels like to breathe fully and wholly with the vitality of the newborn infant. We have forgotten this but we have not lost it. In reclaiming the fullness of our breathing we also reclaim many other dimensions of our lives.” – Donna Farhi
Breathing is one of the few unconscious processes in the body that can be voluntarily controlled and also a remarkable source of energy. Respiration fuels the burning of oxygen and glucose, producing energy to power every muscular contraction, glandular secretion and mental process. So it makes sense that practicing yogic breathing techniques to expand the breath like Ujjayi Pranayama provide numerous benefits.
Most of the time however breathing is an automatic function and we don’t employ a special technique. Our breath arises with endless variation and adaptability, with the rhythm and depth fluctuating in relation to your thoughts, feelings and movement.
So this makes the case for optimizing our natural breathing in addition to learning those fancy breathing techniques.
A process of letting go
Begin by developing a natural relationship to the breath and letting go of effort. Think of it as a process of undoing rather than imposing formal exercises on top of pre-existing patterns of tension. – Diane Long (on the teaching of Vanda Scaravelli)
As you place your attention on your breath it is challenging to avoid changing it. This is similar to viewing your reflection in a mirror, without adjusting yourself to how you think your body should look. Educating your body to fully receive the breath starts with awareness, practicing a shift from a ‘doing’ mentality to an observational state.
From here any patterns and obstructions to natural breathing can be observed rather than using a technique to mask any underlying inefficiencies.
Breathing as a full body movement
If we expand our perception of breathing to include all of the resulting movements in the body. The most important thing to remember is allowing the outer body to reflect the way the breath rises and falls.
By letting the undulations and oscillations of the breath, ripple and travel sequentially through the body from centre to periphery. We find movement is the best indicator of where the breath is free and where it is restricted.
This is usually easiest to visualise as someone sleeping. Their body is in a completely relaxed state and the breath is the primary movement initiator. If we were to translate this to yoga postures it would mean using the breath as a buoyant guide and letting it carry and bring you into (and out of) alignment. This is in contrast to an overly contracted posture mimicking a statue, or mechanically using the outer muscles of the body to force air in rather than letting it arise from inside. You can read more about this in my article on Living breathing asana – how to bring your postures to life.
Observing tension and obstructions
“Removing the chains that bind the breath can be more powerful than attempting to change the breath directly by manipulating it.” – Donna Farhi
Experientially learning the anatomy of your breathing, helps you visualise the different structures at play in your body. You can place your attention and even fingers on these structures to explore how your body reacts.
The key areas of holding are the throat, abdomen, pelvic floor and shoulders.
Any restrictions in the lower body tend to distort the breath. Rather than employing the primary respiratory muscles, this tends to overwork the secondary respiratory muscles higher up in the body and exaggerate your chest (usually reserved for exertion or oxygen deficit).
To free the lower diaphragm, let the weight of your pelvis and surrounding structure relax to allow the muscles in the abdomen and pelvic floor to oscillate. As the diaphragm expands and contracts organs are massaged, churned and bathed in new blood fluids and oxygen.
Guided Inquiry – Natural Breathing
Below is a guided inquiry that begins with relaxation followed by a scan over the key breathing structures.