Yoga: Why yoga is so healthy – the breath and yoga vs pilates – Benefits part 2
Have you ever noticed that if you’re really stressed, you have to remind yourself to breathe? Or if you are scared, your breath comes quick and shallow? Had you ever thought about the connection between your state of mind and your breathing? No? Well, allow me to enlighten you. The breath is the key to controlling our emotions and an entry point to meditation. In yoga, this practice is called pranayama (the external control of energy).
When I’m confronted by people who tell me that they love pilates so why should they bother with yoga, my usual response is that pilates is like yoga without soul. The soul in yoga, comes through its work with light energy (the stuff that most of us can’t see) but also, by controlling the breath, enabling us a greater chance at stilling the mind and allowing us to rebalance our brain so that the right hemisphere comes back into play. Although pilates, like many other forms of exercise, works on our bodies, what it misses is the powerful techniques available through yoga in working through energetic imbalances in our light bodies which I will cover in a later post.
The breath is fundamental to our life force and breath control enables us not only to nourish our bodies physically, it provides a way of gaining control of our feelings and behaviour. Oxygen gives us energy for movement, production of new cells and bodily functions. In everyday life, our bodies are not trained to breathe fully to enable to work at optimal capacity therefore, it needs to be trained.
Breath is controlled not only by the diaphragm (often involuntarily) but by shape changes in the thoracic and abdominal cavities and the accessory muscles which surround it/are attached to it. These include the intercostal muscles, the external and internal obliques, transversus abdominis and transversus thoracis. Healthy breathing is therefore dependent on healthy shape changes in the body. These shape changes occur not only through employing the diaphragm and accessory muscles but when our body is placed in particular poses or, asanas. By exercising our muscles correctly through asanas and breathing exercises, we are improving our ability to breathe better, thereby impacting on our overall health and wellbeing. What many people are not aware of is that there are accessory, diaphragmatic muscles which have an impact on our breath; the vocal and pelvic diaphragms.
When we employ mula bhanda (lifting of the pelvic floor and associated abdominal fibres), our body’s apana (waste expulsion action) is increased. This action is also believed to encourage us to capture prana – life giving energy. When we use this lock during an ujjayi inhalation (the ocean breath we use during asana practice), we are also involuntarily employing uddiyana bhanda. This releases the attachments of the upper abdominal wall allowing the lifting of the rib cage thereby increasing the size of the thoracic cavity and the amount of oxygen we are able to inhale; we can take in more air.
Employing the vocal diaphragm which determines the size of the glottis (the space between the vocal cords) enables us to control how slowly we inhale or exhale. By contracting the vocal cords through a whispering sound means that we can retain air for longer or inhale it more slowly. We make the space bigger during Bhastrika for example, in order to inhale and exhale much more rapidly. With ujjayi breathing, the breath is retained for longer which provides postural support during asana practice. As ujjayi breath combined with our mula bhanda engages all three diaphragms, the mechanical stress involved in holding a posture is redistributed throughout helping to protect the spine and release energy.
The ultimate goal of yoga breath training is to free up the body from habitual, dysfunctional restrictions. We need to free ourselves from the idea that there is a single, correct way to breathe. We need to release the brhmana forces when pursuing langhana, relaxation and the release of sukha.
Since our mind is closely linked to our breath, by using our breath efficiently, we are helping to remove some of the kleshas that may prevent us from achieving yoga, gaining control over the mind and increasing our ability to transcend it. It is when all kleshas from our system are removed that we achieve yoga.