The diaphragm is a big, dome-shaped sheath of muscle hugging just underneath our ribcage and separates the thoracic cavity (chest) from the abdominal cavity. It serves as the primary breathing muscle (note: NOT the lungs!). At rest (e.g., not breathing), the diaphragm creates a dome. Before inhaling, the diaphragm pulls down and flattens out to creative negative pressure inside the body, hence drawing the air in. As the diaphragm presses down on the abdominal cavity, our digestive organs are pressed down and out, hence the protrusion of the belly.
If you were to observe a baby breathing, you’d notice that he is breathing into the belly. It is our innate nature to stimulate the diaphragm, but overtime environmental stressors have caused us to breathe more shallowly. Contrary to the common notions of breathing, where we breath mainly into the chest, activating our diaphragm to retrieve air is much more efficient. Not only do we draw in more air and maximize the amount of oxygen going into the bloodstream, when we contract our diaphragm we also stimulate the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation. The downward motion of the diaphragm also gives our digestive organs a good massage. There have even been studies showing that some cases anxiety, stress, and depression can be resolved by deep-breathing exercises.
So why do we want to breathe deeply in our yoga practices? Well, first of all, many of us probably came to yoga to find some sort of relaxation, to promote calmness, to get away from the craziness and stress of life. Breathing is one of the critical factors to stimulate relaxation. Second of all–and this applies particularly if you are attending a strong vinyasa class–if you are breathing shallowly into the chest while trembling in your Warrior II pose, your body will kick into stress mode. By taking in deep breaths in more difficult postures, you are focusing the mind on the breaths rather than the fatigue in your thighs, you are transporting oxygen in the bloodstream to feed your muscles to support the asana, and your mind won’t think that holding Warrior II poses harm to your life.
In my Vinyasa classes, I constantly remind my students to keep breath as the priority. Allow the breath to initiate the pose, allow the breath to guide you into a suitable modification of the asana for you today, and allow the breath to take you safely out of the asana. Breathing is the key doorway to yoga. As the modern father of yoga Sri T, Krishnamacharya said: “If you can breathe, then you can do yoga.” If you are putting your body into difficult and seemingly impossible postures but not breathing, then you are not doing yoga, but rather only doing gymnastics or calisthenics. If you put the breath, hence awareness, into every movement, even if it’s a simple arm wave to one side, then you are doing yoga. You are uniting your movements with your breath, and this unity is what helps remove blockages along your body’s physical channels (e.g., blood vessels, lymphatic systems) as well as your body’s energetic and subtle channels (e.g., nadis). In the yogic language, you are essentially allowing the prana to flow.
So next time you are feeling waves of negative emotions coming up, try taking a few deep breaths into your belly and see what happens. Here is a story that demonstrates that even a four-year-old understands the concept of deep breathing:
I have a friend with two adorable little ones, a boy aged 6 and a girl aged 4. On a typical weekday afternoon, the boy had caused some trouble and my friend was on the verge of taking her anger out. The little girl who was watching the whole thing, said to her mom: “Mommy, take 3 deep breaths and you’ll feel much better.”
These were the words of a four-year-old, and if she understood the effects of breathing deeply into our diaphragm and spreading that energy into all our limbs, then so can we. As grown adults, we just need to return to our primal state of breathing. And yoga is one path to achieve that.
Easy At-Home Breathing Exercises
The following exercises are great done early in the morning to give yourself a calm start, anytime during the day you feel the need for a little reboot, or at night before bed to calm the nervous system.
- Find a quiet space in your home where you can lie down comfortably without being distracted.
- Lying on your back with the eyes closed, place one hand gently on your belly where the navel is, and the other hand on top of your chest.
- Take deep, slow breaths all the way into your belly. You should feel both the chest and belly rise as you do so.
- Keep the inhalations and exhalations equal in length. You can even try counting the length of your inhales, then match your exhales with the same count. This induces a meditative quality as you focus on your breath.
- Continue for at least 20 deep breaths, then move on to Method 2.
- Flip over so that you are now lying on your belly. Fold your arms in front of you so you can rest your forehead or your cheek on the hands. Alternatively, you can rest your head on a small pillow.
- Repeat the deep belly breathing technique here. On your inhalations, feel the belly pushing into the floor (or the surface you are lying upon).
- Continue for at least 20 breaths, then rest for a few minutes.