If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve heard some reference to the breath at some point. We know it’s incredibly central to the yoga practice; the awareness of the breath is perhaps the thing that defines yoga against any other forms of movement, exercise, or meditation.
I've been taking an anatomy training this week with Leslie Kaminoff. Walking in, I didn’t expect to learn much about the breath. I thought I was going to learn some rules about origin and insertion points and how an asana should ideally be performed. He just keeps saying, though, that every individual is different, and there is no rule that’s going to work for everyone, and he keeps coming back to the breath as the central function of our physical and emotional world. He keeps repeating back to me two of my own favourite mantras: “Think for yourself,” and the perennial “Why are we doing this?” He wants us to learn on our own terms what breath means in our bodies. It’s quite thrilling, really.
Literally, when we take a breath in, our lungs change shape and also volume—they get bigger. The diaphragm is a sheet of material that connects the lung cavity to the abdominal cavity. Your lung space is not like an empty room that your breathing organs can expand into and out of untouched. Your abdominal cavity is a bit like a water balloon connected to the accordion of your lungs: it changes shape, but not volume (within an individual breath—I’m not talking about cheeseburgers here, which will definitely change the volume of your belly if you eat enough of them). This system works a little like a vacuum: breathing in pushes down on the abdominal cavity to change its shape, and exhaling lifts the diaphragm and pulls the abdominal cavity upwards.
Usually, when we are relaxed, we will see the breath in the belly. It's not, of course, literally in your belly—your lungs stop about midway down your ribs, but if you stabilize your ribs and relax your belly, you will see the change in shape manifesting as your belly rising and falling.
We often forget that embedded in the abdominal and respiratory cavities is the the spine itself. The front of the spine—not the bony protrusions we usually think of, but the mobile vertebrae below that bony layer—is embedded quite deep into these cavities. Every time we change the shape of the inside of our bodies, we have the potential to also be changing the shape of the spine.
Kaminoff suggests that we've gotten a little obsessed, in the yoga world, with taking deep belly breaths. We think that if we can make the belly really big on the inhale, we are doing really good. Many of us already have a built-in stress pattern, though, that looks like squeezing the ribs and the belly down and sending the breath, words, stress, and emotions deep into the abdomen. A deep breath can actually involve the ribs, the sternum and collarbone, and yes, the entire spine, all of which are more mobile than many of us assume.
Much of the “stuck” stuff we are holding onto is related to patterns of breathing we've learned in times of stress: for example, holding the breath, squeezing the abdomen, and tightening the jaw. The practice of yoga opens up the muscles and bones so that the breath can access those stuck places and guide release. We can learn to send our exhales up and out, instead of down and in, by sighing, singing, laughing, even crying, rather than just holding on and bearing down.
It's incredibly empowering to remember that we are fundamentally fluid, moving, changing beings. That even when we are at our most still, we are shape-shifting on every level, from the cellular to the skeletal. If we can spend time exploring how the breath moves in the body, and how the body can help move the breath, we can learn a lot about where we could use a little more space, what our patterns are, and how we can reprogram our stress responses to change the way we interact with the world.
Here is a breath exercise you can try at home:
Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Place one hand on your belly, below the belly button, and the other on your chest, above the nipple line.
Without doing anything specific here, just notice where your breath tends to go naturally. Which of your hands is moving more? There's no wrong answer, just notice.
Now bring your awareness to your lower hand. See if you can send a little more movement there, by relaxing your belly and stabilizing your ribs. Notice what that feels like, and if it brings up any emotion for you.
Then bring your awareness to your upper hand. See if you can breathe up there a little bit more. Think of your ribs as somewhat elastic, and allow them to move 360 degrees as you breathe. Try softly engaging your pelvic floor and lower abdomen to stabilize the belly and send the breath higher up. Notice how that feels for you, if it's easier or harder, and if it brings up any emotion for you.
After a while, relax everything, and think of a deeper breath. Don't worry about where it's going, just imagine a nice deep spherical breath opening up whatever it wants to open up in your body. Try this for a while and notice: where does it go? How does it feel?
Now you've experienced your own personal superpower: shape shifting. You do it every day! It’s up to you if you want to play.