Breath, Yoga and Structural Bodywork
Breathing is a process that connects all living beings, it is a prerequisite to life. It is the very first action that an infant needs to engage in to ensure its’ continued survival. The first breath we as human beings take declares our physical and physiological independence after birth.
A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years. ~ Swami Sivananda
In this article I will be discussing the intimacy between breath and the structures that support it as well as its’ relationship to yoga and structural bodywork.
From a traditional medical perspective breathing is described as the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs. From a structural or an anatomical point of view we could go one step further and define it as the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs via a three-dimensional change of shape in the thoracic and abdominal cavities as seen in the diagram below: a) represents inhalation and b) represents exhalation
The thoracic and abdominal cavities make up the vast majority of the torso: within the thoracic cavity the lungs and heart can be found while the abdominal cavity contains the rest of the body’s vital organs. Between the two cavities lies an important dividing structure called the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a large sheet of skeletal muscle thats’ shape is sometimes likened to that of a parachute because of it’s dome like appearance. It is the principle muscle that causes the three-dimensional shape change within the cavities of the torso. As the diaphragm expands the pressure gradient within the thoracic cavity drops and air flows in to fill the space, in other words the diaphragm and the body create the space and the Universe fills it with breath.
From this expanded definition we can begin to see the importance of the relationship between yoga and breath. Breath is what connects us to the Universe and yoga practice can be defined as the integration of breath, body and mind.
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Breath and Yoga
Why is it that conscious breath is emphasised so much during yoga practice? Breath is considered the ultimate teacher of yoga. It has the dual nature of being both voluntary and autonomic; conscious and unconscious. Thus breath has the ability to help us to distinguish and illuminate the eternal question of change versus surrender, what we can control versus what we cannot. This is one of the ancient principles of yogic philosophy (kriya yoga).
Another fundamental principle tells us that one of the main purposes for practice is the removal of obstacles (kleshas) that hinder the natural functioning of our systems. As we look at our definition of breathing as a change in shape it becomes clear that effective breath is relative to the ability of the surrounding structures to allow this change of shape. How much space is present for the universe to fill with breath.
The Sanskrit term prana refers to what nourishes a living thing, it is prana that the Universe fills us with through each breath. Pranayama is a term often associated with restraint of the breath as the root word yama means restraint or control. This definition may offer a limited view of breath practice and a more expansive view can be taken if we consider the root word ayama meaning unrestraint. In this way pranayama can refer to a process that frees the breath as it helps connect the practitioner to a deeper, fuller more spacious breath. As Patanjali’s definition of kriya yoga explains so beautifully we simply need to identify and resolve some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our own natural balance:
“like a farmer who cuts a dam to allow water to flow into the field where it is needed” ~ Yoga Sutras by Patanjali
Integration of breath in this way will, in time, lead to an exploration of the conscious use of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system and the subtle energy of the bodily functions it controls. This increases our ability to harness the power of the autonomic nervous system through inner awareness and in turn reconnects us to our ability to rest and destress consciously via the parasympathetic branch of this system.
Physiologically there is an increase in the vital capacity (the amount used) of our lungs through this act of conscious breathing as well as a decreased respiratory rate meaning better oxygen exchange in the body. This way of breathing also strengthens the connection to our main muscle of breath, the diaphragm, and as we continue to come back to this fullness of breath over and over it becomes once again our default breath pattern. This resetting of our breath back to the original, unobstructed wave of breath serves to reduce stress responses and brings further balance to the autonomic nervous system.
Breath and Structural Bodywork
One of the main goals of structural bodywork is assisting in reconnecting a client to the fullness of their breath. As an infant breath is full and natural, unimpeded by many outside forces. You only have to watch a baby breathing as it sleeps to see way the entire body moves with breath. As we begin to stand and walk the force of gravity starts to act on the body in a more direct way. As we age and begin to take on the stresses of the world as well as develop habitual patterns and repetitive actions we also develop limitations to this fullness of breath due to these outside forces taking their toll. It is through the process of pealing away layers of tight tissue and reconnecting to the fullness of conscious breath that structural bodywork can help to reinstate a natural balance of breath in the system.
Conscious breath shifts the control of breathing from the medulla oblongata or brain stem to the more evolved part of the brain the cerebral cortex. This has tremendous effects on the emotional state of the system as the cerebral cortex sends inhibitory impulses to the respiratory centre in the midbrain. These inhibitory impulses from the cortex overflow into the area of the hypothalamus, which is concerned with emotions, and relax this area. This is why slowing down the breath has a soothing effect on your emotional state. As emotions can create tension in muscles, this may lead to stiffness and blockages in the flow of prana, awareness of breath helps to manage these emotional disturbances and allows the energy to flow more freely.
Focusing on breath while integrating movement allows for a fuller proprioceptive response meaning that the feeling sense of the movement is emphasised. This leads to conscious control of movement and less risk of injury when movements become more intense or repetitive as coordination of the nervous system and muscles is developed.
The Universe breathes Us All
It is the most fundamental of connections, our union with the Highest source that we enhance as we bring our awareness, our consciousness to breath. We offer ourselves a chance to know the most inner workings of mind, body and heart as we sit with breath. This knowledge of Self and awareness of the Universe is one and the same, it brings with it a great sense of peace and healing and is available with each breath if we are willing to begin the journey.
“The path of humanity is always coordinated with heaven and earth in the alteration of movement and stillness. Human energy is always in communion with heaven and earth in the alteration of exhalation and inhalation.” ~ Thomas Cleary in Taoist Meditation.