Breath is intrinsically linked to the practice of yoga. It is also intimately linked to the human experience but unfortunately most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the impact our breathing patterns can have on our health and wellbeing. In the field of sport, smooth and efficient breathing is crucial to deliver oxygen to our muscles to perform to the best of their capabilities.
The respiratory system is one of the only systems in the autonomic nervous system that is under both voluntary and involuntary control. This allows us not to have to think about breathing when we are in situations where our attention is required elsewhere. Consequently, we rarely take the time to connect to our breath, to observe how we breathe or even to understand what happens when we breathe. This lack of awareness can result in adopting bad breathing patterns that become habitual. These bad habits can affect your sleep, mood, digestion, nervous system, muscles, and brain.
Through the practice of yoga, we learn to become more conscious of our breathing. At the beginning of classes time is dedicated to basic breathing awareness. For example, yogic breathing. This is done is 3 steps. First, we observe the action of the major breathing muscle, the diaphragm, as we inhale and exhale. We become aware of the natural expansion of the abdomen as we inhale and contraction as we exhale. Next, we move the breath into the thoracic (ribcage) region. The external intercostal muscles located in between our ribs move the ribcage outwards and upwards as we inhale and the internal intercostals move our ribcage inwards and downwards as we exhale. The next step is clavicular breathing. When we think we have inhaled to our lungs capacity we can go one breath further as if we are breathing into our shoulders. Here we are breathing as deep as possible and are using muscles in our neck region such as the scalene muscles to maximise the inhalation. Engaging all 3 types of breath in a seamless flow is known as yogic breathing. Yogic breathing can help deepen and correct our breathing patterns but should not become habitual. Once awareness and control of the breathing process has been established, the clavicular technique is dropped and breathing becomes a combination of abdominal and thoracic breathing.
Through practices such as these we gain a basic understanding of what is involved in each breath. This knowledge gives you more control over the respiratory system and ultimately it can help reduce stress, lower your heart rate, increase blood oxygen levels and it allows you to exercise longer with less effort.