It’s that familiar time again: standing with feet together, feeling a little bit nervous, a little bit excited, and ready…
Every Hot and Warm yoga class in an evolation yoga studio has an opening breathing exercise, pranayama deep breathing, that helps you kick start your physical body, warm up, and start the class with a focus on the most important factor of your practice: the breath.
So many things are happening during this breathing exercise. Inhaling and exhaling synchronized with head and arm movements can be a lot to think about, especially for someone who is just beginning their yoga practice. To understand this more fully, it is best to break down the breathing exercise into parts.
inhales and exhales
First of all, let’s look at the inhales and the exhales. The idea is to take in as much air as humanly possible to fill the lungs completely in a slow and controlled fashion over the course of about 6 seconds on the inhale. On the exhales, it’s the same slow and controlled flow, but emptying the lungs completely. This seems like a simple concept, but once attempted, you begin to realize that this is no easy feat. Your body isn’t used to completely filling and emptying the lungs, it likes to use the easy-to-access and habitual parts of the lungs. This can feel confusing to the body and the mind at first, because it is so different than the typical breath used for most of the day.
We all favor either the inhales or the exhales. This means that for some of us, the inhale breath feels like it could go on forever and ever and the exhale is difficult to stretch out the whole 6 seconds. In others, it is the opposite. Notice this in your personal practice and try to give equal amounts of attention to both sides of the breath as they are equally important. The key is going about this breath in a completely different way, attempting to make the feeling of it a three-dimensional, whole body experience, rather than just constrained to one small, familiar area of the chest. When this is found, the lung tissue and connective tissue (fascia) surrounding the organs of the upper body (thorax) are stretched and warmed. Also, the intercostal muscles between each rib are stretched and warmed, and the place where the ribs connect to the vertebrae (costovertebral joints) and their surrounding ligamentous structures are mobilized and rejuvenated. Once the slow, controlled, calm pace of full inhales and exhales is committed to, then the rest of the actions of the pose can be focused upon.
head and neck movements
Also involved in this breathing exercise are movements of the head and neck. On the inhales, the head moves toward a position of the chin parallel to the floor, eyes looking straight ahead. On the exhales, the head moves back toward a position of the face parallel to the ceiling, which takes the cervical spine (neck) into extension. These movements are meant to be just as slow and controlled as the movement of the breath, and to last the whole 6 seconds to make the full range of motion. Besides the obvious benefit of warming up the neck muscles, this movement of the head and neck play a large part in freeing the breath and opening up the chest as well. When the fascia of the anterior neck is opened, it feeds space to the underside of the rib cage and to the fascia and membranes surrounding the lungs, heart and other viscera of the thorax. For some people, the motion of the head and neck reaching backward can feel very vulnerable, difficult or even a bit frightening. To overcome these feelings, the best thing to do is make sure the eyes stay open, stay committed to the calm pace of breath, and determine if you are using your arms and shoulders in a way that helps this action or fights it.
This brings us to the actions of the arms and shoulders during this exercise. Interlaced fingers underneath the chin are the anchor point of the arms. On the inhales, the elbows slowly, steadily lift toward the ceiling and on the exhales, the elbows reach forward and together away from the chest, touching at the completion of the exhale. One set of muscles to become aware of, that will tremendously help you during this exercise, is your trapezius muscles.
your trapezius muscles
The trapezius muscles are the muscles that shrug your shoulders upward. In most people, these muscles tend to be far more active than is necessary. When they are overactive, your shoulders will creep up right next to the ears making it nearly impossible for your head and neck to have room to go into extension. Becoming aware of whether or not your trapezius muscles are relaxed will greatly shift the feeling of difficulty of the head going back on the exhales. Your trapezius muscles should stay fairly relaxed on the inhales as well. When your elbows reach toward the ceiling, your shoulders don’t have to follow. They can stay in a neutral position, which means your trapezius doesn’t need to activate. When your elbows reach forward and together on the exhales, your trapezius muscles are still neutral, shoulders away from the ears, so your head can go all the way back and your throat can get a deep stretch.
All of these things put together and brought to your attention can start to shift this breathing exercise from a struggle to a vast exploration of the mechanics of your body. Try and see what a shift in your outlook on this practice can do for you! Instead of feeling nervous or like this exercise lasts forever, you might experience parts of your body ebb and flow with the breath that you never thought possible. You might even feel that it ends too soon!