In general, if people were to be asked about breath, a broad notion would follow. It is an involuntary action performed by the body from birth to death or on an average 23,040 breaths everyday are simply a means to be alive. Ask the dying on the vital importance of breath and only if he could, he would tell the true meaning of every breath. A child is born with a perfect breath pattern. Infants exhibit the correct style of breathing. As we age, we tend to mix various emotions like stress, tension, worry, trauma, happiness into our breathing patterns and the outcome is an imbalanced cycle of breath, which is jerky, broken, and insufficient.
The natural breath conducted by us on a day-to-day basis is just the tip of an iceberg. We sustain ourselves with the crumbs that fall into our plate without realizing there is a whole loaf available. It can be rightly said that life is but a series of breath, however, with an improper attitude and a bad lifestyle be assured this gift is going in vain. Correct posture defines both the quality and the quantity of breath. As soon as, we stoop the shoulders or slouch while sitting, we contract the balloon like lungs and rob them of their true potential of holding oxygen.
Yogic science explains the significance and implication of correct breathing at length and with the help of a few breath work exercises called Pranayama, it hopes to alter the quality of our lives. Pranayama stems from ‘Prana’,‘the life force’ and ‘Ayama’ means ‘the expansion’. Through simple breath work exercises, we are aiming to expand the life force, access longevity, increase vitality, and experience a spurt of energy in the body. Pranayama addresses the Pranamaya Kosha (five layers of our being), which can be further discussed at length. For now, let us first focus on the three types of breaths, before practicing any pranayama, every yogi should be aware of, because pranadirectly connects to asana (poses) and dhayana(meditation).
Yogis hold Abdominal or Diaphragmatic breathing with utmost importance and encourage their pupils to imbibe the same. We are born with the gift of perfect breathing pattern (abdominal breathing) and infants depict the perfect example of the same. When a child rests, his belly rises and falls seamlessly. The diaphragm is a dome shaped, balloon like muscle that starts from the 7th rib and goes upto the 12th rib, follows from L1 to L3 vertebral bodies and connects several other ligaments, tendon and muscles including the Psoas, Aorta, and Quardratus Lumborum. Apart from stabilizing the core, in conjunction with the intercostal muscles, it helps to reduce pressure from the thoracic cavity. The abdomen rises and falls with contraction and expansion of the diaphragm.
In the ardent desire to own washboard abs, adults incorporate the Transverse Abdominis (contract stomach muscles) due to which only the chest rises and falls and the stomach stays put. While this may cater to high beauty standards of the urban age, in the long run it is going to give way to exceedingly bad repercussions. To start with; the diaphragm will weaken and it will no longer be able to justify its true potential, the body will experience a shortage of breath, and lethargy would seep into every pore and cell. Not to mention, respiratory problems, anxiety, brain fog, low BP, and many other ailments can follow the league.
The simple procedure of abdominal breathing requires the practitioner to lie down in a supine position and place the right hand just above the navel and the left hand on the center of the chest. With every inhalation, the right hand should rise, whereas, the left hand should stay put or move just a little. With every exhalation, the right should go down with the fall of the belly. The left hand should just act as a guide and display minimum or no movement.
As opposed to Diaphragmatic breathing, Thoracic breathing demands the practitioner to carry out chest breathing. Instead of being relaxed, this pattern, if carried out for a prolonged period, creates unwanted stress and strain in the body. Mostly, people indulging in fast paced exercises experience the shallow breath. The middle lobes of the lungs are engaged in this process adjust the rib cage expands and contracts. The central tendon, the flat surface at the top of the dome shaped diaphragm, is made up of non-contractile tissues. It can only move, but the contraction occurs in the connecting muscle fibers. In thoracic breathing, with every inhalation, the central tendon is held in place and the thoracic cavity moves upward, front and back. This expands the chest. The quantity of the oxygen is limited just to the lungs and does not reach the stomach, which creates a feeling of lack and shortage.
The practitioners are taught this style so that they can experience the right and wrong of the subject matter. To practice this pattern, the practitioner is required to come in a supine or seated position and bring awareness to the natural flow of the breath. Gradually, they are required to start using the chest for every inhalation and exhalation. This is to say, breathe in and expand the chest. Notice, the ribs expanding and with every exhalation, exhale completely just from the chest. The breath should be slow and deep with total concentration not involving the abdomen.
A step further into the shallow breathing pattern, Clavicle breathing or Upper Lobar breathing, requires us to truly experience the shortest and shallowest breath. Normally, we conduct this type of breathing pattern during a strenuous workout, fearsome situation, or when we are struggling to get enough air for example, in case of severe asthma. In order to perform Clavicular breathing, after the practitioner has conducted thoracic breathing, they lift their shoulder and clavicle or the collarbones to inhale further. The sternum, neck, and the throat muscles give in to carry out this process.
While this type of breathing in normal circumstances is to be kept at bay, many yogis perform this style when they are looking for energy, higher mental clarity, or wish to increase the oxygen supply in their body. The extended action of inhalation, after Thoracic breathing,electrifies the body with oxygen like current. Increased concentration, endurance, and clean nasal passage are some of the other benefits that follow.
Our life patterns, including our habits and behavior, are an aftereffect of the flow of Prana in the body. Ashtanga Yoga purposefully incorporates ‘Pranayama’ as one of its branches, because without a disciplined and alleviating breathing pattern, it is simply impossible to achieve universal assimilation; the ultimate goal.