This is another in a series of articles that we are publishing on the yogayoga website. If you are interested in further reading, we stock all Donna’s books at the studio.
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Moving with the Breath
By Donna Farhi
When we move in harmony with our breathing, whether in yoga practice or life, our outer actions accord with our deep inner experience.
"First of all the twinkling stars vibrated,
but remained motionless in space,
then all the celestial globes were united
into one series of movements...
Firmament and plants both disappeared,
but the mighty breath which gives life to things
and in which all is bound up remained."
- Vincent van Gogh
Our breath is constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, entering and leaving our bodies. Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage internal organs, oscillate joints, and alternately tone and release muscle tissue.
The waves of our breath alto carry emotional content, sexual stirrings, and messages from the psyche, and they open us to our own creative potential. All human movement is informed by this internal oceanic tide. Learning to move with our breath, rather than against it or without its support, can transform our yoga practice and our life. When we move in harmony with our breath, our outer actions will be in accord with our deep inner experience.
Because respiration is primarily regulated by involuntary controls through the central nervous system, we might wonder why anyone should bother to "work" with their breath. After all, our bodies are breathing automatically day and night. But is calm, rhythmic breathing the usual state of you, body? My observations as a yoga teacher have led me to conclude that shallow breathing and chronic breach holding are so prevalent in our culture that a person who can breathe freely is rare. This is a frightening state of affairs, considering the impact poor breathing has upon our health, well-being, and quality of life.
What does it mean to breathe in a healthy, functional way? This question is more difficult to answer than one might think. As pioneering breath-worker Ilse Middendorf points out, at one end of the spectrum is the unconscious, involuntary breath: at the other end is breathing that is controlled and regulated by the will, such as the classic pranayama exercises. In between these two extremes lies the "essential" breath, a conscious flow that arises out of the depth of our being and dissolves effortlessly back into our core. To access this essential breath, we must first be able to focus on and perceive our own breathing process; that is, we must make the unconscious conscious.
Some schools of yoga have incorporated breath and movement by designating specific patterns of regulation - for example, inhaling for 10 counts as you lift your arms. While this approach may give the practitioner a certain confidence by providing a structure to rely on, it does not offer access to the essential breath. Other schools treat the breath as something that is added (if at all) only after the asanas are perfected. This latter approach is analogous to trying to learn to sail without knowing what wind is. If we ignore the breath, we will rely on willpower to create and sustain our poses. When our will is driven from an external reference point - a mental concept of how the poses should look or how our breath should move - we will practice to become who we think we should he, rather than discovering, through the self-acceptance that is implicit in free breathing, who we actually are.
Movement arises from breathing, and breathing is stimulated and shaped by movement. Each informs the other. Therefore, to learn basic movement we have to learn, to perceive the fundamental flow of the breath - not in an artificial, controlled form, but in its virgin state.
When I asked a group of students attending a breathing and relaxation course in San Francisco to record the situations in which they noticed themselves holding their breath, the results surprised and disconcerted them. Some noticed that they held their breath in almost every conceivable situation, including talking, walking, and even while practicing yoga postures. If we hold our breath all day, this pattern naturally carries over into everything we do, including our yoga practice. You might begin your investigation of your own breathing patterns by trying this experiment in observation, because becoming aware of your habits is the first step in recovering healthy breathing.
What are some of the obstacles we may encounter on our journey to reclaiming our natural, spontaneous breath? There are two primary breathing patterns that are associated with a sense of breathlessness: thoracic breathing and hyperventilation. The first pattern, thoracic breathing, consists of breathing predominantly with the secondary respiratory muscles (the muscles of the upper chest, back and neck). They are called secondary respiratory muscles because they are biologically designed to come into play only when our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This activation is known as the fight-or-flight response, in which the body readies itself to meet a real or imagined danger. In thoracic breathing, the person tightens the abdomen and inhales into the upper chest. The physiological effects of this pattern include increased heart rate and blood pressure, gastrointestinal distress, asthmatic symptoms, and neck and shoulder tension. The breath may be shallow, punctuated by breath holding or by gasping.
The second pattern, hyperventilation, is not usually recognized except in its most extreme forms. It can, however, be both subtle and chronic. This pattern is characterized by rapid, shallow breathing punctuated by frequent sighs. Hyperventilation causes too much carbon dioxide to be expired and results in an increased alkalinity of the blood. This alkalinity can cause anxiety, phobia, and dizziness, as well as a vast array of other physical and psychological symptoms.
Why do we distort our natural breath? One possible explanation is that we have responded physiologically to our accelerated environment - we are literally too busy to catch our breath. Life is fast these days. The demands are very real and enormously difficult to meet without succumbing to the ubiquitous -hurry-up sickness? To meet the pace, we have replaced whole-body activities with automated technologies. Compare the physical moments of driving a car to those of walking or cycling. Compare chopping vegetables by hand, shoveling in the garden, washing clothes in the river, or any number of virtually obsolete activities to using the machines that have speeded up or taken over these tasks. These machines accomplish tasks quickly, but when we use them, we bypass the normal rhythmic structure of human movements. Their rapid, mechanized movements are biologically out of sync with our slower breathing cycle. To catch our breath, we have to emphatically refuse to fall prey to the epidemic of speed and honor our inner rhythms.
Just as powerful as the undertow of our technological environment are the ideas that many of us may hold about how our bodies ought to move and look. Barbie and Twiggy prepared a generation of women for anorexia and bulimia. The impossibly thin models of Vogue and Self set our standards for personal appearance. So we cinch in our belts, pull on our panty hose, and squeeze into our Calvin Klein jeans. Donning restrictive suits and ties like so much armor, we prepare for another day of corporate battle.
For some of us, the days of restrictive clothing are gone - we've opted for the loose and comfortable. But even if the horrors of the corset are no longer with us, the cultural image of the body beautiful wraps our psyches tighter than any lace up girdle. To achieve it, we contract our anus and pelvic floor, pull in our stomach, and restrict the movement of the diaphragm to keep the waist svelte. This constriction automatically forces us to breathe in the upper chest. Stop yourself in almost any given activity, and you may be surprised to notice that you are unconsciously contracting your anus and holding in your abdomen.
Sometimes our breathing changes in response to injury or illness. For example, we may limit the movement of our breathing in order to reduce or avoid pain. This strategy may be necessary at times, like when a rib is broken and needs time to mend. But more often than not, holding the breath only exacerbates pain by reducing circulation and increasing muscular contraction in the body. When we hold our breath, all the body knows that something is wrong, and it responds accordingly by activating the fight-or-flight response. Just imagining a stressful situation can significantly decrease inhalation volume. This increased state of tension in the body is a poor environment for healing and growth.
Constricting the breath is also a way of repressing trauma and emotional pain, whether conscious or unconscious. Breathing freely means we accept that life is changing all the time and that we can change and open ourselves to meet each new moment. When those changes become too daunting, too painful, or too frequent, we may hold ourselves against the shifting rhythms of our breath, like sitting on the lid of Pandora’s box. We may imagine that if we push down hard enough, demons and fears will magically vanish, and the secrets in our lives will stay locked away. Breathing means being fully alive - facing our worst fears, feeling them fully, and then moving on.
So where do we begin? First we must start by unlearning. Many books and manuals on breathing liken the action of the ribs to bucket handles and instruct us to push and pull our bellies, in and out like pneumatic pumps. But all this pushing and pulling is a poor replacement for the complex billowing movement of breathing. A sailor learns to sail by just learning how to watch the water's current, and sense the direction of the wind moment to moment. Once this skill is mastered, he or she can then manipulate the sails to move the boat in almost any direction. With open-minded attention, we too can learn the mysterious currents of our breath and then work with this internal tide to create support for our movement, and to release the whole body.
Developing Breath Perception
The primary purpose of these exercises is to observe some of the body movements that occur spontaneously during relaxed, unrestricted breathing. Once you have a sense of how the body moves with your breath, you can then become more conscious of allowing these movements in all daily activities. For now, drop any ideas of how you should breathe. Watch for the machinations of the judgmental mind that discounts small movement as insignificant. Acknowledge whatever movements you can feel and take special note of places where you can't sense any moment at all.
Child's Pose or Side LyingFigure 1.
Kneel on a well-cushioned surface with the knees hip-width apart. Stretch forward over your thighs and rest your forehead on the floor in front of your knees (Figure 1). You may wish to raise the forehead and buttocks with small pillows. The most important thing it to be very comfortable so that you can observe your breathing for at least five minute. If Child's Pose is still awkward for any reason, try lying on your side with a pillow wedged between your upper thighs and knee, and another under your head. Observe the following:
The movement of the pelvic floor. Close your eyes and amply allow yourself to settle for a few moments. Check that you are not gripping the anus or tightening through the perineum (the space between the genitals and the anus). Also check around the base of the buttocks for any unconscious holding. If you’re not sure whether you are holding tension in these areas, contract the buttocks, anus, and pelvic floor for about seven seconds and then let go. Repeat this action several times until you can recognize the difference between tension and relaxation in this area.
Now scan your body. Where is the movement of your breath most noticeable? Sense into your belly. If you observe carefully, you may feel how the abdomen naturally swells and presses against your thighs and then gently retracts without any effort on your part. Especially notice whether you are holding your abdomen in against the natural ebb and flow of the breath. If you're not sure, you might try holding your abdomen in and feeling what happens to the movement of your breath. Then relax and notice how your body moves in response to your breathing when you don't interfere. Feel how your anus opens when you breathe in and how it gently retracts on the exhalation phase of the breath. Notice how your genitals swell as you inhale and subtly retract as you breathe out. Do you have more sensation in your sexual organs when the breath moves fully there?
The movement of the sacrum, coccyx, and lumbar spine. Begin to notice how your sacrum and coccyx move with your inhalation and exhalation. Can you feel how the tailbone lifts away from the pubic bone on the inhalation? As the tailbone lifts, the lumbar spine (lower back) gently arches or indents (Figure 2). As you exhale, feel how the tailbone retracts toward the pubic bone, causing a slight flattening of the lumbar curve (Figure 3). If you contract your anus and pull the abdomen in, you will effectively prevent this wonderful movement from happening. Allowing this movement is crucial to regaining full, natural breath.
The movement of the spinal column. Continue your observation along the entire spinal column. You might imagine that the spine is like a piece of driftwood and that as the wave of your breath passes through the body, the spine floats up and down on top of it. Are there parts of your spine where you feel this movement clearly? Are there other segments that feel rigid and undifferentiated?
Figure 2. As you inhale, feel the tailbone lift away from the pubic bone and the lumbar spine gently arch.
Figure 3. As you exhale, the tailbone retracts back toward the pubic bone, causing a slight flattening of the lumbar curve.
The movement of the hips. Bring your awareness to rest on your hips. Can you reel how the swelling motion of the inhalation causes the hip bones to broaden slightly out of the hip sockets? You might also notice that the hips lift away from the floor. Don't try to create this movement mechanically, but acknowledge even the tiniest motion. Remember that our intention is not to create a big impressive breath, but to notice the natural breath that already exists.
The movement of the shoulder girdle and arms. Now bring your attention to your shoulders. As you inhale, see if you can feel the way the inhalation broadens the entire shoulder girdle. Feel the spreading sensation all the way from the breastbone through the collar bones to the shoulder sockets. You might also notice that the shoulders lift slightly away from the floor as you breathe in and that the arms retreat slightly into the shoulder sockets and round toward the floor as you breathe out. It may also be helpful to watch how the pressure of your arms against the floor changes as you inhale and exhale.
Full body movement. To finish your breathing observation, imagine that your skin is like a knitted sheath that covers your entire body. As you inhale, feel how the strands of your sheath stretch and spread apart, creating space throughout the body. As you exhale, feel how the strands settle back together. You can also use the pressure of your clothing against your skin as a biofeedback device for feeling the movement of the breath throughout the body. With practice, you can feel the "echo" of your breath in your fingertips and toes. Take a few more moments to sense the places in your body that are opening with the breath. Also notice the places that are being held tight against the breath. Then slowly come to a sitting position.
Come into a squatting position with the arms extended in front of you for support. If your heels do not comfortably reach the ground, support them with a folded blanket. Check that you are allowing your abdomen to release freely with your breath and that you are not unconsciously gripping through the pelvic floor. Now look back between your legs. Watch the movement of your pelvis as you breathe. Can you see the pelvis lift slightly up and back as you breathe in? Notice how the pelvis retracts back and down with the exhalation. Sense into your spine and see if you can feel how your lower back oscillates back and forth with the incoming and outgoing breath.
Sit on your heels or in any other comfortable sitting position. Position your knees slightly lower than your hips so that the pelvis is upright. Have you already started to hold in your belly and pull up through the pelvic floor? Relax and watch the “swimming" motion of your tailbone, forward and backward, as you breathe in and out. Set if you can feel any of the movements you observed in Child's Pose. In your attempt to sit "properly," are you holding the body stiff against the fluid motion of the breath? When you breathe freely, there will be moment, where the spine is slightly extended (arched) and less supported by the abdomen - during the inhalation - and moments where the spine is slightly flexed (rounded) and more supported - during the exhalation. This normal fluctuation massages all the internal organs and mucles, bringing fresh regenerative fluid and nutrition as well as removing depleted blood and waste products. If you sit for long periods of meditation, you may find that sitting in this fluid way prevents the tension and stiffness that many people experience when they attempt to sit "still."
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees bent. Fold your torso forward over your thighs. As you exhale, allow the weight of your breath to drop through the torso to the spinal column begins to elongate. Feel how the entire torso lifts and retracts slightly away from the floor as you breathe in, and then releases downward as you breathe out. Don't pull the torso downward against the natural rising movement of your inhalation. This natural oscillation of the torso is a perfect environment for the release of deep tensions, just as surely as being rocked when you were a baby.
Allow your shoulder blades to drop with the exhalation and continue that release down the length of the arm. If you can't perceive any movement, try breathing through your mouth, sighing deeply as you exhale. Mouth breathing will create a less controlled breath and exaggerate the movements of the body, making them easier to observe. Finish up by checking for any holding at the base of the skull. Remember that there is really nothing that you can do to make these movements happen - you can only undo, that is, disengage from effort, so the breath can move freely through you.
Come into a standing position by drawing your sitting bones toward your heels, letting your head be the last thing to come upright. The moment your head comes into a vertical position, check your pelvic floor. You may he surprised to notice that you automatically contract your anus and lift up through your belly in order to stand up straight. Exaggerate this action now and observe how the energy shifts in your body. Can you feel tension increasing in your head, neck, and shoulders? Are you breathing more in your upper chest and neck?
Now allow your anus to open freely as you breathe in. Release the base of your buttocks down towards your heels and, instead of pulling your tailbone under, let the weight of your exhalation drop down through the tailbone. Notice if tension decreases in your shoulders, neck, and head. Does standing like this make you feel more connected to the ground underneath you? Do you sense that you have “both feet on the ground” instead of “your head in the clouds” when you allow the weight of your pelvis to drop into your legs?
Figure 4. No matter what position you are in, the body naturally wants to release in certain directions, as indicated by the arrows.
Figure 5. Allow the joints of your body to move in response to the wavelike movement of the breath.
Figure 6. Do not hold your torso and limbs stiff against the breath, as if you were superimposing the posture on top of the breath.
The Marriage of Breath and Moment
This exercise is designed to clarify the relationship between breath and movement. It can serve as a springboard for your own creative exploration.
Sit on a hard chair so you can feel the pressure of your sitting bones. Let the chest rest comfortably over the center of the belly. Place your hand on your thighs with the palms facing upward. Gently stretch the hands so the fingers are softly extended but not tense. Then relax the hands and let the fingers curl inward so the palms form a slight hollow. Continue to rhythmically fold and unfold the hands. Then begin to observe your breath. Did you notice that you inhaled when the hands were extended and that you exhaled as they relaxed? The movement of the hands stimulated the breath. As your breath deepens on its own accord, it will start to feel as if the breath is stimulating the movement. The inhalation asks the hands to unfold and the exhalation gently retrieves the fingers back inward. Is the breath causing the movement? Is the movement causing the breath? Each is inseparably entwined with the other.
Breathing guidelines for asana practice
The new breath awareness you have developed through the previous exercise can dramatically transform your asana practice, if you let it. Integrating breath into asana can bring increased sensitivity, grace, and fluidity to your practice. The following are some basic guideline for abreath-based practice.
1. Shift priorities. If you make the breath secondary to achieving the posture, you will probably hold or restrict your breath as a means to that end. It is the movement of the breath through a position, rather than the position itself, that makes an asana truly healing. Without this fluid current flowing through our bodies, yoga asanas can take on the energetic quality of stuffed animals. Fortunately, good alignment and free breathing go hand in hand, but the latter should never be sacrificed for the former.
2. Watch transitions. How you get into an asana largely determines whether or not you will be able to breathe freely once you are in it. Before you begin a movement, always take the time to scan your body and check that your breath is calm and regular. As you begin to move into the position, check again that you are not holding your breath as part of your technique for "getting there." (This constriction may then extend itself as your strategy for "holding the pose.”) Working this way may mean that you have to slow down a bit, do less, and perhaps even be temporarily unable to perform postures you could previously accomplish when you were holding your breath.
3. Breathe as you balance to clarify your alignment. Breath holding is most apparent in the balancing postures, where the weight is supported on one leg, the head, or the hands alone. As you observed in the previous exercises, the undulation of the breath causes a normal oscillation through the body. When you breathe naturally, your body constantly moves back and forth around your center of gravity. To allow this oscillation of the breath in balancing poses without tumbling over, your alignment must be impeccable.
In balancing postures (including simply standing upright), the first imperative of your nervous system is to keep the body from falling over. If your alignment is poor, the nervous system gauges which parts of the body must contract to balance, contraction through the diaphragm is one of the most effective strategies. In fact, if you contract your diaphragm and hold tight through your center, you can balance in almost any position with the most atrocious alignment. The contraction through the center will almost always prevent you from falling, but it will also prevent you from breathing! When the breath is given primacy, skeletal alignment will be clarified by necessity.
4. Direct the breath to support movement. Once you have begun to observe and respect the natural movements that the body makes in response to the breath, you can then begin to direct the breath intelligently to support your movements. The principle is really quite simple. No matter what position you are in, the body naturally wants to release in certain fundamental directions (Figure 4). For example, in almost every posture, the paraspinal muscles should release away from the spine. Familiarize yourself with these directions of release. Direct your breath wherever you wish to open, release, lengthen, or support.
To accomplish this successfully, you must understand where the movement truly arises. For instance, when I extend my arms out to the sides as in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose), I began by directing my breath into the sides of the chest. Thus when I bring my arms out to the sides, my breathing supports them, and the extension comes from my core, not just from my arms and fingers. My inner experience of opening is in accord with my outer action.
5. Never be sure. Allow the joints of your body to move in response to the wavelike movement of the breath (Figure 5). Allow your elbows, shoulders, knees, and spine to shift in response to the oscillations of your breath. It you commit yourself to a position, especially in the first moments after entering it, you may hold your torso and limbs stiff against the breath, as if you were superimposing the movement on top of the breath (Figure 6). Like a blind person, exploring an unfamiliar room, move your awareness over your entire body, seeking, sensing, discovering, but never sure.
6. Follow clues. Your breath is constantly informing you of your internal state. What we experience as stiffness is often nothing more than the current of the breath hitting up against the resistance of constricted areas in the body. When we feel this phenomenon, we can focus our attention in these areas and visualize our breath originating from there. Imagine the breath penetrating and breaking up dense areas, almost like setting off gentle explosions.
Notice what postural adjustments make your breach flow more easily into blocked areas. These adjustments may contradict our ideas of the "correct" way to perform a pose. But if we honor them, they can give us real insight into how best to work with our own bodies at any given time.
Breath awareness in everyday activities
Even the most advanced yoga practice is of little practical use if we can't extend our awareness into our everyday lives. After you've practiced observing your breath in controlled situations, pick one of the following exercises, and work with it for at least a week before you continue to the next one.
1. Watching. Record the activities and situations in which you notice yourself breathing shallowly or holding your breath. Especially note your interactions with people with whom you are uncomfortable or anxious. Observe whether the other person breathes shallowly or quickly or holds her breath. Are you matching her breath pattern? Do you hold your breath during discussions that involve conflict or stressful topics, or when you find it difficult to tell someone the truth?
2. Moving. Choose one simple activity in which you have regularly noticed yourself holding your breath. It should be an activity where there are no time constraints or pressures, such at making your bed. Practice allowing your breath to move freely as an integral part of the activity.
3. Eating. Set aside one meal a day in which you do not feel any time constraint. Let yourself breathe slowly as you can. Notice how it feels to allow your belly to release as you chew and swallow your food. Observe whether your meal was more enjoyable. If you tend to overeat or have digestive problems, did monitoring your breathing help you stop eating when you felt your stomach becoming full? How did you feel after your meal - energized, fatigued, satisfied?
4. Talking. Practice reading a short paragraph aloud while allowing the breath to support your words. Read at a speed that is congruent with your breath capacity, letting yourself pause when necessary. Then proceed to monitoring your breath during telephone conversations. When you feel ready, watch yourself as you talk with a casual acquaintance. Your graduation exam for this exercise it t practice breathing during an argument. How does this practice change the way you interact with others and the outcome of your interactions?
5. Daily vigilance. Punctuate your day with moments where you check your breathing. You might use a cue, like observing your breath every time you hear a phone ring or see your favorite color. Try not to chastise yourself if you find yourself holding your breath. Just note the situation you are in, notice how you are feeling, and gently return to a more relaxed breath pattern.
• Breathing for Health with Biofeedback . Dr. Erik Peper. A wonderful kit including two cassette tapes and booklet that can be used with or without biofeedback instrumentation. Available through Thought Technology, RR#I. Rte. 9 North #380, West Chasy, NY 12992, US. Tel: (514) 489-8251
• Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, and A Hymes (The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, 1979). Contains fascinating information on the mechanics of breathing.
• The Perceptible Breath by Ilse Middendorf. This book is accompanied by a set of cassette tapes. Unfortunatelty it is very poorly translated and edited, but patient reading uncovers some rich material for exploration. Available through Feldenkrais Resources, P.O. Box 2067 Berkley, CA 94702. Tel: (415) 525-1907
This material was originally published in: Yoga Journal November/December 1992.
Donna has been the asana columnist for both Yoga Journal and Yoga International Magazine (U.S.A.), and has been profiled in four separate publications on exceptional contemporary teachers of our time, including Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. Donna is the author of the contemporary classics, The Breathing Book, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness and Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living. Her fourth book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship is used as a curricular text in teacher training programs worldwide. American Born, Donna now resides in Christchurch, New Zealand where she pursues her passionate love of horses.
These articles appear on this website by permission of Donna Farhi and are all copyrighted materials.
other Donna Farhi articles:
One Woman's Yoga
Moving Inside the Breath
The Window In
Moving Outside the Square / The Sun Salutation
Flexibility & Focus / The Arm Balance Sequence
Coming to Stillness / Janu Shirsasana / Head-to Knee Pose
Supta Padangusthasana / Reclining Big Toe Pose
Virabhadrasana II / Warrior 2
Sirsasana II / Headstand 2
Salabhasana / Locust
Ardha Chandrasana / Half Moon
Finding your Inner Compass / Parsvottanasana / Flank Pose
Yoga for Enlightened Living
A Blueprint for Optimal Movement
Moving with the Breath
more to follow...
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