Proper breathing is what makes yoga, well, yoga. Paying attention to our breath is what transforms mere exercises into a dynamic practice that helps us to understand our true nature. Our breath is the gauge that we use to know if we’ve gone to far and the anchor that keeps us present in the moment. But before going too deep, let’s take a look at what it takes to breathe well during yoga practice.
It will be helpful to get acquainted with the diaphragm—the large muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. It essentially bisects the torso into two parts. This muscle is fairly mobile. It has the potential to be drawn down low into the abdomen upon inhalation and pulled up into the chest cavity upon exhalation. That is, if it is called upon to do so. Unfortunately, most of us do not utilize the diaphragm to breathe, and so we lose the ability to really fill our lungs with air.
The three-part breath is the best way to experience breathing with the diaphragm. Begin seated (or reclined on your back) with your hands on your belly.
Part 1. Sit up tall and relax the shoulders. Then relax the muscles of the belly. Next begin to inhale with the belly completely relaxed, and try to draw the breath down into the belly. (The breath doesn’t actually go into the belly, but the movement created by the breath does.) If you have trouble achieving this, push the belly out somewhat as you inhale to get the feeling of the movement. As you do this, take a moment to notice that you are able to fill your lower lungs with air. As you exhale, feel the belly sink back in (drawing it in if you need to in order to feel the movement).
Part 2. Next, place your hands on your lower rib cage. As you inhale, feel the belly expand (part 1) followed by the rib cage opening and expanding. As you exhale, feel it sink back in. Follow this movement for a few rounds of breath, noticing how the lungs fill with air from the bottom up.
Part 3. Finally, place your fingertips on your collar bone. Inhale and feel the belly expand (part 1) followed by the ribs (part 2) and finally, feel the chest rise and expand as your finish your inhale. Think about the top portion of the lungs filling with air at the end of the inhale, and think about how the exhalation empties this portion of the lungs first. Follow this movement for a few more rounds of breath.
Next release your hands and sit with this three-part breath for a while, noticing how your body moves in response to the breath without having to actually feel it. This deep awareness of breath linked to movement will help you find more awareness in your yoga practice. Connect to it as often as you can.