About the Breath

In order to live and keep the body healthy, we require not only food and water, but also air to breathe. The air we breathe is even more important than eating and drinking. Without food we can survive several weeks. Without water we can survive for a few days. However, without breathing we can survive for just a few minutes. Our life begins and ends with a breath.

Within one breath, three phases can be distinguished [1]:

  1. Inhalation

  2. Exhalation

  3. Pause in breathing

One phase flows into the other. The exhalation should last approximately twice as long as the inhalation. The pause in breathing arises naturally at the end of the exhalation phase and lasts until the impulse to inhale occurs of its own accord. The inhalation forms the active part of the breath. With it comes contraction of the respiratory muscles. The exhalation is the passive part of the breath, the phase of relaxation.

Quiet, regular and deep breathing is decisive for our health. It has a harmonising and calming effect upon body and mind. On the other hand, breathing that is too rapid and shallow has a negative influence upon us, as it can intensify nervousness, stress, tension and pain.

A frequent mistake in breathing is drawing the abdomen in as the chest expands, rather than relaxing the abdomen forwards. Drawing in the abdomen considerably impairs deep breathing. Often fashion and restrictive clothing inhibits this natural movement.

Therefore, all exercises in Yoga, including the breath exercises, should be practiced slowly and without unnecessary tension - without ambition or competition. The breath should be silent and through the nose (Because the air is filtered, moistened and warmed within the nose.). Over a period of time and with practice, one tries to gradually slow and lengthen the breath. Only through correct breathing can the full effects of the Yoga exercises totally unfold.

With all exercises it is very important that they are practised in a physically and mentally relaxed state. A physically relaxed state is essential, as it is only then that the muscles can stretch in the respective Asana without creating tension. A mentally relaxed state is necessary so that the Asanas can be practiced with full concentration on relaxing and breathing. By exhaling consciously, one can considerably assist in the relaxation of the muscles, as the relaxation of the muscles is connected to the exhalation.

Yoga shows us how body and mind can be influenced by different breathing techniques. Unfortunately our normal method of breathing has moved a long way from the natural and correct way of breathing. A fundamental requirement to restore healthy breathing is practice of the Full Yoga Breath.

The Full Yoga-Breath

To help in learning the Full Yoga Breath three types of breathing are distinguished:

  1. Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing

    With an inhalation, the diaphragm moves downwards compressing the abdominal organs so that the abdominal wall extends outward. With an exhalation the diaphragm moves upward again and the abdominal wall flattens. In contrast to the inhalation, the exhalation is a passive process.

    The abdominal breath forms the basis of breathing as it allows the full use of lung capacity, slows down the breath in a natural way and promotes relaxation.

  2. Chest Breathing

    With an inhalation, the ribs are lifted so that the chest expands. With an exhalation, the ribs return to their original position. The air flows into the middle lobes of the lungs. The lungs are not filled as much as in abdominal breathing and the breath is more rapid and shallow.

    This breathing occurs automatically in stressful situations, due to nervousness or tension. The unconscious use of this more rapid form of breathing creates a heightened state of tension. To break this unfavourable cycle, slow and deep abdominal breathing is of great assistance.

  3. Collarbone (Clavicular) Breathing

    With this type of breathing the air flows into the top of the lungs. With an inhalation, the upper part of the chest and collarbones are lifted and with an exhalation, they lower again. The breath is very shallow and rapid.

    This type of breathing occurs in situations of extreme stress and panic, or where there is great difficulty in breathing.

In a healthy and natural breath, all three variations occur. Each is united into a flowing wave, which proceeds from the bottom to the top of the lungs with the inhalation, and from the top to the bottom with the exhalation. With the inhalation, the abdomen extends forward and the chest is expanded. With the exhalation the chest and the abdomen return to their original position. When one practises this type of breathing utilising the full lung capacity naturally and without any force, one is practising the Full Yoga Breath.

Exercises for the Three Types of Breathing

Starting Position:
Lie on the back

Concentration:
on the whole body and breath

Duration:
2-3 minutes

Practice:
Lie on the back. Arms are relaxed beside the body and palms face upwards. The legs may be straight, or bent with the soles of the feet on the floor. Close the eyes and relax the body.

Variation A:
>Place the hands on the abdomen and observe the movement of the abdomen with each inhalation and exhalation. >Now place the hands on the side of the ribs (fingers point towards the centre of the chest) and observe if and how far the ribs expand and contract beneath the hands. >Next, place the hands just beneath the collarbones and observe the movement of the chest in this area.

Variation B:
>Inhale and exhale several times quietly and a little more deeply than normal. Become aware of all the sensations associated with the breath. >Continue to breathe in the same way and, keeping the arms straight, slide them along the floor towards the head. Observe how the sensations associated with the breath change with each position of the arms, and how the volume of the breath increases.

  1. Keeping the arms straight move them sideways along the floor to an angle of about 45°. Pause and consciously observe the flow of the breath.

  2. Move the arms a further 45° along the floor so that they now stretch out to the side at shoulder height. Pause briefly and once again observe the flow of the breath.

  3. Continue the movement of the arms until they rest beside the head on the floor.

>Exhaling keep the arms straight and slowly slide them back along the floor until they are beside the body again. Straighten out the legs and remain lying still for a short time, relaxing.

Exercise for the FULL YOGA BREATH

Starting Position:
Lie on the back

Concentration:
on the whole body and breath

Repetitions:
5-10 rounds

Practice:
Lie on the back. The legs fall loosely away from each other. The arms lie relaxed beside the body with the palms facing up. Relax the whole body. Close the eyes.

Variation A:
>Inhaling keep the arms straight and slowly move them out to the side and upwards along the floor, until they rest beside the head. Coordinate the breath with the movement of the arms, beginning with the abdominal breath, then moving into the chest and finally into the area of the collarbones. >Exhaling slowly return the arms beside the body. The exhalation is carried out in reverse: consciously begin the exhalation in the area of the collarbones, continue through the chest, finally relax the abdomen.

This is one round. Repeat the exercise 5-10 times. Consciously feel the process of breathing so that the breath is as deep and full as possible.

Variation B:
>Inhaling keep the arms parallel to each other and raise them in a high arc towards the ceiling. Place the arms on the floor beside the head with palms facing up. >Exhaling return the arms beside the body in the same way. The palms rest on the floor. >Consciously feel and observe all three types of breathing (abdominal, chest and collarbone breathing).

Repeat the exercise 5-10 times. Notice how this breath exercise increases the volume of the breath after only one round.