Unlocking the breath for health and vitality
By Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on January 15, 2013.  Posted with permission. 

Watch sleeping babies.  Their bellies rise and fall.  How did we lose that?

We’re oxygen deprived.  Most adult breath is locked in the upper chest filling only 1/3 of your breathing capacity. Healthy breathing expands the diaphragm and belly, stretching the ribcage and lungs for maximum oxygen intake.

Susan Rennie, respiratory therapist with Lee Memorial Health System, explained that the breath “is magic we can manage.”

“Oxygen is the source of all energy and activity in the body.  The better we breathe, the better we think, pump, digest, and heal,” Rennie said.

Rennie is a proponent of Bellows Breath which is yoga’s Bhastrika Pranayama.  Stand or sit straight.  Pull the shoulders away from the ears, and close the mouth.  Inhale through the nose, and inflate the belly like a basketball.  Pull the belly inward, and exhale through the nose.  Repeat for a count of ten with inhalations and exhalations of equal duration.

Notice how you feel.

Yogis knew the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing 5,000 years ago.  Prana is the life force that rides the breath.  Another tradition calls it chi.  Another calls it The Force.  Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”  In the yogic world, and certainly in the breathing world, Obi-Wan had something.

Prana is why yoga is different from any fitness modality.  We learn both on and off the mat that movement is secondary to the breath. We lose the breath; we lose the yoga.  Although yoga enhances strength, flexibility, and vitality, it’s first an energy practice that aligns and merges the body’s energy with that of the universe so the ego-self disappears.  This much-coveted transcendence runs on prana.

If you’re into that.

Even if you aren’t tripping the light fantastic, your body can still benefit from pranayama.  When you lose breath control by rapid panting or holding, you’re denying your body oxygen.

So, explore this breath checklist, and visit the online edition for pranayama video.

Belly breathing takes practice.  Before working up to smooth Bhastrika, try the sandbag.  Lie on your back, and place a 25-pound rice bag over your belly and lower ribs.  With smooth belly breathing, lift and lower the bag.  Then hit Makarasana (Crocodile Pose).  Lie on your belly, cross your arms with hands on opposite shoulders, and rest your chin in the triangle.  As you breathe deeply, feel your belly press into the floor.

Pranayama is also calming and centering.  Bhramari is Humming Bee Breath.  Sit and block your ears with your thumbs.  Your index fingers touch the forehead while the remaining three cover your eyes.  Now, hum and hum, enjoying the vibration in your head.  Alternate-Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) balances the right and left brain.  Close off the left nostril and breathe through the right for a count of four.  Close both nostrils and hold.  Then, exhale through the left for four.  Inhale left.  Hold.  Exhale right.

When stressed, meditative Ujjayi focuses your mind on the breath.  Exhale like you are fogging up your eyeglasses, but close your mouth.  You’ll sound like the ocean or perhaps Darth Vader.  Inhale by pulling the breath into your lungs with the throat. Close your eyes.

The breath-activated yogic sit-up energizes the core, the third chakra power center.  Lie on your back with bent legs.  Inhale with your arms overhead.  Slowly, without jerking, sit up with a sigh, your arms reaching.

Finally, access your strength. Hold plank pose, a push-up position with straight or bent legs, or even rest on the forearms.  Double inhale through the nose.  Double exhale through the mouth.

Always remember throughout the day, inhale light and space when you rise and stretch.  Exhale all that no longer serves when you compress or fall.