When we talk of things like yoga, relaxation or meditation, we always mention the breath and breathing. We’re told to take a full breath, to breathe deeply, to move with the breath. And rightly so; good breathing can help us to maintain good mental and emotional wellbeing, a robust immune system and a calmer mind, among many other things.
One thing that’s often left out though is: how do we make space for the breath?
We live a fast-paced life these days, filled with stress and worry and rushing about. How often do you attempt a big breath in, only to find that it won’t fit in your poor, squashed up lungs? We spend all of our time hunched over a desk, head down as we tweet or text or snapchat on our mobiles. We hunch our shoulders, lean over, put our heads down – and there’s no space for our lungs to expand!
Good quality breathing can make a massive difference, not just to our meditation or yoga practise but to every detail of our every-day lives. The average person breathes 21,600 times every single day. If we’re only half-filling our lungs with each breath, that’s an awful lot of oxygen to be missing out on.
The diaphragm and intercostal muscles work together to open our chests and draw breath into our lungs, but neither can work well while our bodies are all scrunched up – there is no space for the breath, and so we all breathe shallowly, often without really realising.
In order to breathe fully, we need to allow space for the breath in our chests. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the diaphragm that allows for this space – so exercising it is pointless. I’ve seen people recommending that we lay flat with a sand bag on our bellies, so as to practise belly breathing – but this does nothing for the diaphragm and actually only exercises the muscles we use for exhaling – it doesn’t help us to breathe in more fully. The diaphragm is only as good as the space above it, and it’s this we need to work on.
As anyone who has ever had a panic attack will tell you, trying to take a deep breath when your chest is tight feels impossible – because the muscles are constricting the space, and there is nowhere for the air to go. In order to breathe fully, we need to work on opening our chests.
There are many yoga postures which are designed specifically for opening out our chests and allowing this flow of breath into our lungs. The idea is that we should mobilise the upper chest and back so as to allow the air to move freely into our lungs, and our chests to expand naturally, without force.
When we are able to perform these chest and shoulder opening poses each day as part of our practise, we soon experience a feeling of freedom – not only in our breathing, but more generally, in our mental and emotional bodies.