"You want me to BREATHE?"
You can bet that this guy isn't focused on his breath right now!
The way it works. Inhaling doesn't mean Breathe IN. Rather, as you inhale, imagine your body filling with air and Expanding.
Your intercostal muscles: The muscles that hold your ribcage together.
Did you ever hear the one about the blonde who went to the hairdresser? She had on a pair of headphones, and she refused to take them off. When they went to wash her hair, the hairdresser took off her headphones, and then the blonde died. When they were trying to figure out what happened, someone put on the headphones and listened to them. “Inhale, Exhale, Inhale, Exhale…”
Stupid joke, right? I mean, who needs to be told to breathe? Its as natural as… breathing.
Yet, how many of us actually stop and pay attention to our breath, and to its effects on our bodies, our minds, our everyday lives?
Pranayama, or breath control through breathing exercises, is one of the fundamental principles of yoga, right alongside with Asana (or postures.) At one of its most basic levels, Yoga can be thought of as a means for creating space in the body through asana and meditation, to allow more oxygen (breath, pranayama) to circulate into the body, bringing more red blood cells to your vital organs, allowing your brain to think more clearly, and your muscles to function more effectively.
“Remember to breathe“… I often chastise my yoga students as I lead them into a posture and let them work through it. One of the most common “mistakes” people make in yoga is that once they get into a posture, especially one that is more challenging for them. Forgetting to breathe cuts off the flow of oxygen, and consequently, the flow of oxygenized red blood cells, limiting the benefits of the posture. Without the breath, doing a posture isn’t necessarily yoga, rather, it is just holding a slightly silly looking position while wearing tight pants. (Or Jeans and Tims, if you are a NRA student).
In kayaking, we wear drytops with gaskets that press on our throats, we wear PFD’s that we cinch around our waists, constricting our chests, we sit in funny, odd cramped positions, we wear nose plugs, closing off our nostrils. Did I forget anything? Oh, right. We spend copious amounts of time underwater. And yes, I agree. It is difficult to breathe underwater. Which makes breathing properly, or taking the time to breathe while on dry land that much more important.
“An old yogi wandered into a lodge in the middle of winter, asking for lodging. Sitting besides the fire, he blew on his hands. “why did you do that?” the lodge owner asked. “To warm them up”, the yogi responded. After recieving his soup, the yogi blew gently on the spoon before putting it in his mouth. “Why did you do that?” The logde owner demanded. “To cool it down,” responded the yogi. The lodge owner seized a fire-iron and shouted, “Get out! Get out of my house! I’ll have no sorcerer who can blow both hot and cold under my roof!”
A silly children’s story to be sure, yet breath can have a calming, or invigorating effect on the brain and body. It can cool, it can heat, depending on what you do, and how you use it. Often on the river, when confronted with a challenging rapid, I take the time to refocus my mind, and concentrate on my breath. Inhale, Exhale, repeat. Emphasizing my breath allows me to focus, and to calm myself, to better prepare for the rapid ahead. Through the rapids, I am constantly reminding myself to breathe, timing the inhale and exhale to the rhythm of my paddle, providing more power. The first thing I do at the end of the rapid? Catch and eddy, let out a sigh, and take a breath.
The Dirga Breath: Or Three Part Yogic Breath
I start every yoga class with breath work. Normally I allow students to find a comfortable seated position that allows them to create space in their torso. It is important to imagine creating space between your vertebre, your ribs, as you feel yourself straighten.
Close your eyes, take a deep inhale in through your nose, and exhale out through your mouth, letting go of any tensions, any distractions, and allow yourself to focus on where you are at this moment. (I call this a “letting go breath”. Also very useful when confronting intimidating rapids) Repeat 2-3 times.
Once you are focused, we can begin to work on the Dirga Breath, or three part yogic breath, so called because you are actively breathing into three different parts of your body. I find it easiest to think of the three parts of your body as your lower abdomen (the area around your belly button, the soft tissue of your stomach), your ribcage, and your chest/collarbones.
We are going to build the breath in three parts, starting first by inhaling, and feeling your belly expand. If you place your hands on your belly, fingers pointed towards your navel, you should feel your fingers widen away from each other as you inhale. Exhale, allow your belly to contract, drawing your belly button back towards your spine.
Repeat this a few times, Inhaling as your belly expands, and softens. Exhale, belly contracts, belly button drawing back to your spine.
Once you are comfortable with this, we are going to build your breath, drawing the inhale up into your ribcage to widen your ribs, and stretch the intercostal muscles. As you inhale, you should feel your ribs flare out, and widen away from each other. This forces your intercostal muscles, your breathing muscles to work a little harder than normal. By consciously working to expand them, we are strengthening them, just as a push up strengthens the muscles in your shoulders.
Inhale, allow your belly to fill, and soften. Continue the inhale, drawing your breath up into your ribcage, widening your ribs apart. Exhale, Ribs knit back together, belly contracts.
Repeat a few times, and once you feel comfortable, we are going to keep building on your breath, drawing it up into the very tops of your lungs, to lift the collarbones.
Inhale, belly fills, ribs widen out away from eachother, and then continue to inhale, drawing the breath up into the very tops of your lungs, lifting your collarbones, exhale, collarbones release, ribs knit back together, belly contracts. Repeat for 10 breaths.
Pause after, as you return to your normal breathing pattern. You may feel a little light headed, from all the extra oxygen making its way to your brain. See if you notice any visible effects, maybe you feel calmer, lighter, more focused. This is the breath I turn to most often on the river when I need to calm myself, and focus more on what is ahead of me. Practice on dry land, and then give it a try!