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.
Breath of Life - the Full Yogic Breath
Breath of life 1: Abdominal
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
This practice presents the full yogic breath in three sections: abdominal breath, chest breath, and breathing right up to the collar bones. First these sections are introduced separately, and then they are integrated into a complete pattern of breathing.
Working with the awareness of the natural rhythm of breath that grows from familiarity with the Circle of Breath practice, the Breath of Life, or full yogic breath, is the basis of all yoga breathing. Paradoxically it is not really a ‘technique’ at all, since when we relax and breathe effectively, this is how the pattern of breath moves naturally. It is how we were born breathing; a full and easeful rhythm of complete breath that many of us forget as levels of stress and tension conspire to restrict and compromise our naturally effective breathing patterns. If our breath is inadequate, we can feel low in energy simply because we are not getting enough oxygen, or we are insufficiently clearing carbon dioxide from our systems. Learning the full yogic breath reminds our bodies how to breathe effectively. It is a way to bring conscious awareness back to a process that has become so deeply unconscious that we may not even be aware of how inadequate to our needs our breathing patterns have become. Shallow breathing or rapid breathing becomes an habitual behaviour. To change habitual behaviours of any kind requires a conscious awareness. So the practice of the full yogic breath begins with becoming aware of the rhythms of the breath. Remember that the aim of bringing conscious awareness to the breath is not to maintain a rigid control over its rhythms, but rather to allow for the conscious expansion and improvement of breath capacity to become so familiar to us that it ultimately becomes an unconscious new habit to replace less effective old ones.
Take time to re-learn how to breathe, and the body will soon be able to take care of the breath for itself. Always feel that this practice is flowing easily and freely, never strain or fight for the breath. Let it flow in and out through the nostrils, keeping the lips closed and the teeth slightly parted.
Notes on abdominal breath during pregnancy
The movement of the belly which is described in most instructions for pranayama, and which is a characteristic of most yoga approaches to breathing, is an effect of the contraction and relaxation of the respiratory diaphragm. This diaphragm is a musculo-tendinous sheet that divides the contents of the abdominal cavity (including the stomach, intestines, liver and kidneys) from the contents of the thoracic cavity (the heart and lungs). It consists of a central tendinous area surrounded by skeletal muscle fibres that run from the edges of a central tendon to attach to the sides of the ribs and the spine. In the non-pregnant body the diaphragm has enough space to move freely: relaxing into a upwardly domed shape, rather like an open umbrella, during exhalation, and allowing the contents of the abdominal cavity increased space, and flattening during the inhalation, thus simultaneously increasing the available space for the lungs to expand with air, reducing the space of the abdominal cavity, and causing the contents to move forward. It is this movement of the diaphragm which causes the forwards and backwards moving of the belly during the complete breath, and it is this movement which is called ‘abdominal breath’. It doesn’t mean that we are actually breathing air into the abdomen; it just means that the full, free movement of the diaphragm has an effect upon the placement of the internal organs, causing the belly to move in and out.
During pregnancy all this changes. The full, free movement of the diaphragm is gradually compromised by the increasing size of the uterus as the baby grows. Eventually, as most of the organs in the abdominal cavity are pushed upwards and/or aside by the growing uterus they move further up into the top of the abdominal cavity, until the diaphragm is completely immobilised. No more abdominal breath. The diaphragm simply cannot move, because of the pressure of the organs beneath it is squashing the diaphragm up towards the lungs. The precise stage at which complete immobilisation of the diaphragm occurs varies according to the size of the baby, and the relative size of the mother. Usually by around 32 weeks it is pretty much fixed into its domed up position. How much movement of the diaphragm is detectable to a woman around this time will depend upon her previous experience of abdominal breath. For example, a woman who has never breathed like this prior to pregnancy is less likely to detect any diaphragmatic movement beyond 30 weeks than a woman for whom abdominal breath is a familiar activity. The difference in their experiences is more to do with awareness than with the physiological restrictions of the diaphragmatic movement. The woman who practiced abdominal breath either before conception, or during early pregnancy, when the rhythmic rise and fall of the belly was still evident, will simply have a clearer idea about the sensations of this breath, and so will be more able to detect its occurrences later in pregnancy, because she will know what to look for.
This breath usually comes in and out through the nose. If that’s not possible or comfortable for you, then allow the flow of the breath to follow its easiest pathway.
How to do it
Lie down comfortably, either on your back with knee support or, after 30 weeks of pregnancy, on your left side.
Close your eyes, and begin by bringing your focus of attention down to the lowest part of the abdomen.
Let the breath move low down between navel and pubic bone.
Allow the belly to expand on the inhalation.
Allow the belly to sink back towards the spine on the exhalation.
Bear in mind that as the baby grows bigger, the discernible movement in the abdominal breath grows smaller. In the early weeks you may be able to feel as if the belly expands on the inhalation and contracts on the exhalation but by the end of pregnancy, this movement is barely detectable. At this time it can be helpful to establish an alternative connection with the abdominal breath through the hands. If you place the palms on the lowest part of the belly, with the fingers pointing downward, then you may pick up a subtle gentle movement. If not, then simply direct the focus of awareness down, through the warmth of the palms, to that part of the belly. With the palms in place, sense that the nourishing energy of the breath is travelling down to that area, by the movement of attention rather than by the movement of the muscles.
Abdominal breathing is calming and centring. During pregnancy it is also a beautiful way to bring the focus on to the baby: ‘breathing for two’ and imagining how much more space the baby gains on the inhalation, and consciously allowing the exhalation to lower the baby deeper inside the warmth and safety of your resting body on the exhalation. Abdominal breathing in this way is helpful at the start of labour to establish the flowing rhythm of breath, and to assist the mother to enter a quiet and relaxed frame of mind. Post-natally, abdominal breathing is an effective and gentle way to begin regaining tone in the abdominal muscles.
These book extracts appear on the yogayoga website by permission of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and are all copyrighted materials. See Uma's new books at and www.sitaram.org and www.yonishakti.co
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother'sBreath: Postures for Pranayama
More extracts from 'Mothers Breath' coming soon...
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