To introduce newbies to the yogic breath is both a joy and humbling: this simple technique brings so many benefits. Just this week a new student within fewer than eight breaths said, ‘I can really feel myself relaxing’. The mind’s anxieties take a hold on the muscles. To exhale is to let go physically and mentally.
The yogic breath is a conscious breath. Day in day out the autonomic nervous system prompts inhalation and exhalation involuntarily. Let’s give thanks to our amazing bodies. Mostly the unconscious breath is shallow, at the level of the collar bones, a clavicular breath. This is because we are so in the mind, concentrating on our work and various screens, abstracted in various scenarios, possibly worrying.
On the other hand, when we exert, the ribs move up like bucket handles to increase the volume of the lungs. This is a breath that is all about the body, fuelled by adrenaline and using the animal part of our physiology. To take a conscious breath is to become emodied, that is to say here now and present in our existence, with but also above mind and body.
The yogic breath means consciously engaging the diaphragm, a set of dome-shaped muscles attached to the lower ribs. On inhalation you lower the diaphragm, so increasing the volume of the lungs from underneath, and on exahalation release. The diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. So when the diaphragm goes down (inhalation increasing lung space), the abdomen rises as its contents are squashed. It can be a very deep breath that increases the vital capacity.
On a physical level the body is better oxygenated and so healthier. The opposite to the stress (fight or flight) response is promoted, that is to say rest and repair. Blood pressure drops, digestion is effective, calm descends. With regular practice the rest and repair mode becomes more normal. You become more peaceful, and this radiates from you!
In fact the diaphragmatic breath is the natural breath when the mind is unclouded by fear or anger. Watch a baby or a dog sleeping. You will see the belly gently rising and falling. The sleep of the innocent.