Breath is a vital component to yoga classes. Yoga instructors (myself included) guide students in breath exercises (pranayama) and instruct when to inhale or exhale with movement. Why is the breath such an important part of yoga, and how does it help with overall health?
First let’s understand what happens when we breathe. Simply put, as we inhale we bring oxygenated air into the lungs. Oxygen then goes through the blood via red blood cells to all areas of the body. The oxygen then converts glucose to energy, thus supporting physical activity and keeping tissues healthy. Carbon dioxide, which is the waste product in de-oxygenated blood, then leaves the body through the exhale.
Increasing the oxygenation in the body helps increase energy to the muscles and decrease pain, it also decreases the chance of injury. Exercise and movement increase red blood cells (remember they carry the oxygen throughout the body). To increase oxygen going to the muscles, one needs to engage in aerobic activities, such as dancing, running, or cycling.
Yoga does not get the heart pumping like these activities, but it still can give you great benefit in this process because it strengthens the capacity of the lungs by toning core muscles and the muscles that help with respiration.
So get up and do the aerobic exercise that speaks to you…..run, dance, hike or whatever. But first, try toning the respiratory muscles in yoga class or with these practices:
Come to all fours in Table Pose with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders
Curve the spine up (like a Halloween cat)
Take a deep breath in to the torso, feeling the breath expand the ribcage and shoulder blades
Hole for a count or 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.
Prone Diaphragmatic Toning
Lay on your belly and rest your head on folded hands
Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase designed to demonstrate the problems that sitting for long periods of time can cause to our bodies. Is this an exaggeration? Can sitting compete with smoking as far as causing permanent harm to your body? There’s no doubt that the more you sit, the less you move, and even moderate levels of movement contributes to good cardiovascular health. But what about the spine? Why are we so achy after a long day of work at a desk? More importantly….what can we do about it?
First lets talk ergonomics and body mechanics. Generally, when sitting at a desk the spine is misaligned. Often the pelvis tilts under and more pressure is put on the vertebral discs and the deep muscles of the back. These muscles then need to work against gravity to keep the spine erect all day long. No wonder they get tired and achy! Additionally, the shoulders and head may hunch forward. The muscles of the neck already do a lot to hold up our heads, so when we bring our heads forward to look at a computer screen for example, they have to work even harder and get tight. As if that’s not enough, sitting can also lead to tight hip muscles and weaken the gluteus muscles The glutes help support the low back and knees, and help us with balance.
So what do we do about this? Obviously if work involves a desk, sitting is just a part of life. Here are some suggestions:
Use a small, folded towel (think hand towel) under the sitting bones at the back of the chair to elevate your hips slightly. This can help you sit without rounding your spine and tucking your tailbone. Thus, taking a little pressure off the low back.
Take breaks during the day to move. Get up every now and then and do 10-20 heel raises. Going up and down on your tippy toes will increase blood flow and strengthen the calf muscles.
Stretch your outer hips with the Figure Four Stretch. Sit toward the edge of the chair and cross your ankle over the opposite thigh the lean forward (hinge at the hips) with a flat back.
Throughout the day squeeze the shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times. This will help reverse when you hunch your shoulders forward.
If you’re looking for a yoga pose that can strengthen your entire spine, increase mobility, and just plain old feels good….look no further than Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose). I often use it in my yoga classes because of it’s many benefits. This pose is also widely used in physical therapy because it has so many benefits for the low, mid and upper back. Among its benefits are:
It opens the heart space. We spend much of our time hunching forward (thus leading to bad posture, neck and shoulder pain)
Can help reverse herniated discs of the low back
Increases flexibility in the spine
Increases strength and endurance of the hip and leg muscles
Lengthens the muscles on the front of the body (abdominals and front of chest)
Here are a few tips to get the most out of this pose, while feeling safe and supported:
Before pressing up into the pose, actively engage the deep abdominals (on an exhale bring the belly button towards the spine)
Then press into the feet and lift the hips. Resist the temptation to overarch the lower spine at this point, we are looking for balance of upper and lower spine in this backbend.
Next, move the shoulder blades closer to each other and arch the upper back. The lower spine will also arch, but the balance of force will not be solely on the low back.
Squeeze the glutes (tushie muscles) together. This takes the work off the hamstring muscles and distributes it to the glutes instead.
If you wish, you may also clasp your hand together under your spine to further open the heart.
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Go, go , go….this is our modern mantra. We rush here, do this, do that, then rush on to the next thing.
All the while our breath matches our movements….shallow and fast. Sometimes after running around and feeling stressed, I have trouble getting my breath back to a normal pace, even with meditation and pranayama (breathwork). There seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my body, in particular my heartbeat.
But is it really a disconnect? After so much movement (of both the brain and the body) the brain isn’t ready to settle down. Since the nervous system controls muscle action (which includes the muscle fibers of the heart, lungs and other internal organs) it’s not surprising that the heart continues to beat fast, and we may feel breathless. We must calm the mind to calm the heart.
The magical solution to this is slow, mindful yoga. When you slow movements down and match the breath to the movements, the nervous system (specifically the parasympathetic nervous system) signals the body to “rest and digest”. This results in reduced heart rate, decreased blood pressure, better digestion, and a reduction in inflammation. The benefits of yoga to calm down the nervous system has been likened to getting a massage or spending time in nature.
So next time you’re feeling stressed, take some time to practice slow, yogic movements matched with breath. Your body will thank you!