SCENE: A yoga class. Students are standing in Mountain Pose like a Buddhist “army.”
Teacher: Breathe in…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “sucking” sound is heard.)
Teacher: And breathe out…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “whooshing” sound is heard.)
Teacher: Good. Now three more deep breaths just like that.
Class: (They are audibly compliant until…)
Teacher: Now step your right foot back.
Class: (The sound of 25 left feet strike the pose, and no more breathing is heard.)
Teacher: What, no more breathing? Let every movement be a prompt to remind you to breathe for the next 90 minutes.
Class: (Sound of breathing is amplified again, and class proceeds smoothly until … well, the class forgets to breathe again. And again. And again sporadically throughout the class.)
What’s going on here? Why do so many of us forget to breathe? Did you actually finish breathing?
It seems laughable, the notion of “finishing breathing.” Our nervous systems are actually built in such away that breath happens automatically, without us prompting our breathing muscles every few seconds. Think about it, a lot of mental energy is actually required to control every single breath (instead of letting it happen on its own), and our brains have a zillion other tasks to balance. But the breezy thing about breathing is that we can control it, and in so doing we can deliberately impact every system of the body.
The yoga students above were doing just fine until they moved their legs. That leg movement siphoned off their concentration on breathing. It’s the old “doing two things at once” phenomenon. Once the grand motor movement of the sympathetic nervous system was issued to the legs, the poor breathing muscles, especially the diaphragm, switched back over to an undercover operative, relying on the automatic signaling from the brain to remind the body to breathe. That is until the teacher reminded the students to resuscitate themselves again.
Pranayama: Holding your breath with your mind.
So even if you do forget to “finish a breath,” meaning your conscious mind flipped from willing motor control to operating on automatic, the good news is that your unconscious mind was NOT finished breathing yet! Your body is so smart, and it loves finding homeostatic balance all the time. WHEW!
The yogis are famous for their controlled breathing practices called “pranayama.” Pranayama also translates to extension of energy. You can easily feel how your entire internal ecosystem shifts gears dramatically depending on how you choose to breathe. Overall, when you influence that length, size, volume and style of your breath, it changes your whole body’s operating system. This can either excite your whole body, or sedate it.
One of the signs of an advanced practitioner is that you’ve narrowed the distance between:
- forgetting to breathe consciously
- realizing that you’ve forgotten to breathe
- then quickly kick-starting conscious breathing again.
In other words, your awareness is so sharp between breaths that the gaps between conscious and unconscious breathing become smaller and smaller.
The undercover abdominal muscle – Get to know it from start to finish
Your biggest player in your breathing underworld is the respiratory diaphragm. It is the prime mover in breathing and its thorough contraction and relaxation dominate the filling and emptying of your lungs (there are other players too, but I am writing a blog here, not a chapter). It’s shaped like an internal parachute and lines the insides of your lower six ribs.
Getting to know your diaphragm is as easy as having the hiccups. When you hiccup (also an unconscious muscle behavior) the diaphragm is in little mini-spasms. One of the “cures for hiccups” (according to my husband) is to take the biggest balloon-style belly breath you can muster and hold your breath for as long as you can. This is actually a conscious and sustained contraction of the diaphragm, and it will often turn off the hiccup reflex. I suppose if a sustained contraction of the muscle will turn off the hiccups, then the opposite might also be true of a sustained stretch of the diaphragm.
You’ll find a detailed exercise for this called “Uddiyana Bandha” here, or watch this video version I created with my physical therapist friend, Kelly Starrett, mastermind behind San Francisco CrossFit and Mobilitywod.com.
Please let me know if my hiccup theory works for you! And for loads of additional pranayamas and core-related conditioning, check out my new Coregeous DVD or try my Yoga for Weight Loss video on GaiamTV.com.
And remember: Don’t be caught dead not breathing!