This is another in a series of book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli that we are publishing on the yogayoga website.
• If you are interested in further reading, we stock a small selection of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s books at the studio.
The Full Yogic Breath
Breath of Life 3: Complete
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
Up to the Collarbones
Once the rhythm flows easily, from the belly up to the chest and then down again, proceed to the final stage to complete the full breath.
How to do it
Feel the breath rising all the way from the lowest part of the belly up to the top most part of the lungs.
Notice the sideways expansion and of the ribs as the breath fills the lungs. Maximise that expansion, taking the ribs broader and wider as you fill the lungs right up to the tip, sneaking in an extra top-up breath right under the collarbones at the base of the throat.
On the exhalation allow for a complete letting go as the breath flows out.
Because this final level of breath expansion takes the awareness rights up to the level of the collarbones, sometimes the tops of the shoulders lift towards the ears at the height of the inhalation. This kind of hunching tends to close of the front of the chest and bring tension into the neck and shoulders. To avoid it, remember to keep the shoulder blades drawn down the back, and move them in towards the spine as you inhale. This gives the forward and upward movement of the upper chest that allows for the breath to move right up to the level of the collarbones without any hunching.
Using the full expansion of the lungs right up to the collarbones can be empowering and strengthening. It is a way to access the full power of the inhalation, and to create a fully open feeling across the front of the chest. Especially during late pregnancy, when the immobilisation of the diaphragm compromises other aspects of the complete breath, the direction of the inhalation up to the very top of the lungs can increase vitality and alleviate breathlessness. In postnatal period, especially when feeding small babies, and/or feeling exhausted as a result of sleep deprivation, remembering to ‘sneak in’ the extra breath up to the collarbones can provide a welcome boost of energy. It’s an often-forgotten aspect of the complete breath, and in its absence, the upper chest can be deprived of the full potential of its possible range of expansion, compounding the lack of energy and the low spirits that led us to forget to breathe fully in the first place. It can be a difficult downward spiral from which to escape. A simple and effective means to reverse such a downward spiral is to remind yourself to breathe right up to the collarbones. The sneaky ‘top-up breath’ can be a treat to discover – like a surprise gift when you least expect it.
Full Yogic Breath/Complete Breath
This combines all three sections, abdominal, chest and up to the base of the throat. When run together, these three give the full yogic breath, also known as the complete breath. In this practice, the breath becomes like a wave flowing up the body on the inhalation and down the body on the exhalation.
How to do it
Inhaling, the breath flows up from the pubic bone to the base of the throat.
Experience the rising up of the abdomen and the full sideways expansion of the ribcage.
Feel the shoulder blades moving down the back and pressing the spine forward, sense that the movement of the ribcage allows for a full inhalation. Allow for the lungs to expand completely, and take the breath right the way up to the collarbones
Exhaling, the breath leaves the body and the movement of ‘deflation’ flows down from the base of the throat to the pubic bone. Feel the ribs coming back closer together, the whole ribcage settling back down into its starting position, and the belly moving back towards the spine a little.
Never compromise your own ease: you should be comfortable and relaxed enough with the rhythm of the breath to allow the full yogic breath to flow in a gentle pattern that enables you to breathe completely, but at an easy pace. Watch as the rhythm settles in – there may be some shorter breaths, followed by longer ones – take an interest in the rhythm and cultivate awareness as you watch for the comfortable rhythm to arise. After a while it should feel effortless, as if the breath and the body have become great friends, so that the breath simply lets itself into and out of the body without effort.
This is the simplest and most useful breath to cultivate throughout pregnancy: it energises, produces feelings of calm, and is a reassuring way to connect directly with the baby. Very often the full yogic breath, which brings a richly oxygenated supply of blood to the placenta, will prompt the baby to move around – demonstrating to an anxious mother that the child within is thriving. With regular practice, the full yogic breath can rapidly become second nature, so that any time you pause to focus on the breath, the rhythm of the complete breath occurs without any special effort, and may almost seem to be breathing itself.
At the onset of labour, let the establishment of a comfortable flowing full yogic breath be your priority, and it will calm and energise, building resources of strength for the birthing process, and setting up a rhythm of comfortable breath that can carry through the early contractions. Bear in mind that a complete breathing pattern like this provides optimum oxygen supplies for the baby. When the wave of the breath flows up and down the body, it can be encouraging to know that each inhalation nourishes and strengthens both you and your baby, whilst each exhalation releases both of you deeper into a state of healing rest.
Post-natally, the full yogic breath is an extremely helpful energiser. At times of exhaustion and desperation, just two or three rhythmic cycles of a full yogic breath can completely alter your state of mind and feeling of heart. One minute you may be ferociously preparing to parcel up the baby and leave him on the nearest doorstep right NOW; but a few breaths later, and you are looking for the left sock that got stuck behind the radiator last night so that you can both go out for some fresh air in the park. The breath may be simple, but the transformations which it can bring about are profound.
Many of our students have found that it was helpful to involve a birth partner with the rhythm of this breath by having them direct the focus of breath into the upper back, where most of the breath movement happens during late pregnancy:
Have your partner sit down behind you, close enough to be able to rest their hands on your back as you practice the full yogic breath to the degree which best suits you at that moment. For example, if you are heavily pregnant, don’t try to achieve the big abdominal movement, and if you are feeding a small baby, be especially vigilant about breathing right up to the top of the lungs.
Have your partner rest their hands on your upper back
Have the hands completely relaxed and flat, with the heels of the hands towards the bottom of the shoulder blades and the fingertips pointing up towards the tops of the shoulders. Have the thumbs so that they touch at the end of the exhalation. It should feel as if the woman is breathing against, or breathing into the warmth of the hands on her back.
Once you’ve got the feel of doing this with two hands, and you know the little space where the thumbs meet then you can actually do it with just one hand – right in the middle of the back.
Let your partner breathe along with you and follow the lead and the pace of your breath.
This provides a very valuable form of non-verbal communication, there’s no need to speak – the touch and focus and shared breathing patterns promote a powerful connection between you and your partner.
You feel the warmth of the hands on the back supporting you and you also know that your partner is breathing with you.
This breath is also highly rated as an effective system of pain relief, not just for contractions. Catherine Nestor, for example, who attended yoga classes with us regularly throughout her pregnancy, always knew that she would have a planned caesarean section because her placenta was obstructing the baby’s exit from the womb. She found the breath and movement enjoyable, relaxing and energising through her pregnancy and she wrote to tell us how she had had made use of it during the birth of her daughter: ‘My baby arrived safely on 22 November. Her name is Havana Grace and she’s lovely! I used yogic breathing to help me relax before the c-section and also to assist with pain relief in the following two days. It was very useful’. When I asked Catherine for permission to include her story in Mother’s Breath, she wrote to tell me that six years later, ‘the breathing works now to calm Havana down!’
As an anchor to keep grounded during surprising birthing experiences, and a means to manage the roller coaster of new motherhood, the full yogic breath is often praised by our students. Following the arrival of her first baby, Elli Free wrote to tell us: ‘Just emailing to let you know that I had a baby girl on Tuesday, 5th July at 3.30. Her name is Mia Wickremasinghe. We are both fine. The labour went quite well – only just got to the hospital on time after having being told by the hospital to hold on in there at home as my contractions were not regular enough to go in – every 2 to 4 minutes seems regular enough to me, but there you go. I started to get the urge to push, at which time we decided to call a taxi and on arrival at hospital to the midwife’s surprise I was 10cm dilated! So within an hour of being there she was out. Ravi [Elli’s partner] was brilliant throughout. I had no pain relief at all as I was at home for most of it and was past caring by the time I’d got to hospital – the breathing definitely helped – without it I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the intensity of the pain. The whole experience was so surreal I still can’t quite believe it. I’m now on the rollercoaster ride of emotions which follow – very good day today – who knows what tomorrow will bring……..’
Elli’s openhearted acceptance of the unknown experiences that tomorrow may bring for her and her baby is both enhanced and underpinned by the practice of the full yogic breath that helped her manage her pregnancy and birth so positively. Once the baby has arrived, the full yogic breath continues to be a really useful mothering tool.
At times when everything surrounding the mother and baby is noisy, stressful and difficult to bear, there is a capacity for quiet comfort and joy in the continuous rhythmic presence of the mother’s breath. Everything else may be beyond our control, but the breath is always within conscious reach. We may be standing shocked, as I found myself one freezing January morning in East London, at the side of the road after a near fatal car smash that involved flying across three lanes of nose-to-tail traffic and crash landing into four other vehicles. As I shivered there in the early morning frost, holding my baby son, I faced a giant motorcycle police officer and a small but hostile crowd of the drivers whose vehicles I had smashed. They all wanted to know exactly why my car, with its rearward facing infant carrier in the front seat, was now facing the wrong direction in the fast lane of the A13 in the morning rush hour. It was hard to speak, let alone to remember to keep breathing. Things like this happen, and our babies are sometimes with us (inside or out) when they do. It’s not easy to manage. But with a conscious breath, the child can connect to the sound of the mother’s comfort, and the chaos of the car smashes, and the scary presence of the angry drivers and police officers may pass by almost unnoticed for the child. Remarkably, my older son remained absolutely contented throughout the whole nasty aftermath of his aerial adventure in the ageing Nissan Sunny. Now the incident is a fixture in his repertoire of ‘when I was a baby stories: ‘Oh yes, mummy, that was the time we flew in the car and nearly died. I was eating oat cakes.’
Bear in mind that whenever you make time to do any conscious breath practice, either during an hour and a half long class, or just by taking a couple of yogic breaths when you wait for the kettle to boil, or before you explain to the police constable exactly why you don’t know how the dreadful accident happened, then you are doing yoga not just for you but also for your unborn baby within, or for the child in your arms.
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother's Breath: Postures for Pranayama
more extracts from 'Mothers Breath' soon to follow...
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