Incorporating Balance into Your Practice
Using Diverse Breathing Techniques
By: Marie Williams, Dallas Yoga Magazine Writer & Marketing Advertising Representative
Breathing is a basic component for life and we use it in everyday activities, such as sleeping and exercising. However, it is a much more complicated process composed of specific muscles that are designed to work together interchangeably so that we breathe with ease. This muscle engagement occurs through our ability to use various breathing techniques. By observing breathing as a motor skill, we start seeing how it can be improved through corrective and unique breathing patterns.
Diaphragmatic breathing, coupled with a natural extension of the belly on an inhale, is still considered the healthiest way to breathe. In addition to diaphragmatic breathing, adding lateral breath will further increase an individual’s overall breathing capacity. Unconscious breathing done daily draws oxygen into only the top one-third of the lungs.
Proper breathing techniques are necessary to ensure a yogi can completely expand, utilizing the power of his/her lungs at the full capacity to carry oxygen molecules to the bloodstream, deep in the body. While this is happening, the diaphragm is being used as well as areas the diaphragm is aligned with. When a yogi exhales, toxins such as methane, carbon and water vapor are released from the body.
On June 30, 2018, I had the privilege of being able to attend the Breath and Balance Workshop through SunstoneFIT given at the Skillman Live Oak studio location. The workshop was two hours, from 1-3 p.m. It was small, but quite informative and made for an exceptional hands-on experience! Three different props were used at various points in the workshop: blocks, resistance bands and straws. The blocks were used in the demonstration of Crocodile Breath, resistance bands were used to properly demonstrate Accordion Breath and cut straws were given to each yogi as an instrument to use in proper breathing between each categorized style of breath.
Candice Roth is extremely knowledgeable when involving the anatomy and physiology of both the human body and how it reacts to certain types of situations involving a yogi’s practice. She can often be found immediately after teaching a yoga class explaining a process the human body goes through, the result of improper breathing and incorrect alignment in a yoga posture, or just simply giving sound advice to any yogi that desires to improve his/her practice. Candice teaches the Hot Yoga, Hot Flow and Power Flow classes at SunstoneFIT’s SLO location. She also teaches the HIIT class there as well. I have taken all three yoga classes from her and she gives intense, yet challenging sequences. Her classes are different because she details what the body is doing as she delivers her vinyasa sequences. When she teaches a hot yoga class, Candice is precise with her adjustments for each posture.
As a yogi inhales, there are many parts of the body that are internally working to allow him/her to breathe naturally. The process may seem simple, but each part of that yogi’s body involved in the breathing cycle has a significant role in how he/she is able to breathe comfortably.
During an inhale, the heart rate speeds up, due to a message sent by stretch receptors within the alveoli to the brainstem, which controls the heart rate and the vagus nerve, increasing blood flow through arteries to the lungs so more blood can be oxygenated. Therefore, when the heart rate slows, blood flow to the lungs decreases, discouraging gas exchange even though the lungs are still full of CO-2 heavy air. This pressure change within the lungs forces the air and CO2 waste up and out of the lungs into the trachea through the larynx, pharynx and nasal cavities. We yogis exhale this through our nostrils.
Anytime an individual is under stress, his/her breath is significantly affected, meaning the breath changes in response to different emotions. For example, if a yogi is practicing a vinyasa flow class feeling panicky and anxious, that individual’s breath will most likely be shallow and rapid. What is happening involves millions of sensory receptors in the respiratory system that send signals to the brainstem. In this case, fast breathing pings the brainstem at a higher rate, triggering it to set off the sympathetic nervous system, turning up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production and anxiety. When a yogi is not breathing well, he/she feels tightness in the body.
Opposite this type of reaction, slowing the breath induces the parasympathetic response and decreases the anxiety-ridden effects the body experiences. The body yields to relaxation, a calm state and mental clarity.
The first type of breath Candice talked about was Crocodile Breath, done in SunstoneFIT’s HIIT classes. Unfortunately, yogis who take this class do not always perform the breath correctly. Instead, they shift their breathing to the upper chest and connecting muscles, causing them to lose full engagement at the diaphragm. The goal of crocodile breathing is to help the yogi associate with nasal diaphragmatic breath. Candice explained to us how to correctly perform Crocodile Breath, first by lying on our bellies on our mats. The floor provided the frame of reference. On our bellies, our forehands rested on our hands, as we allowed our bodies to be flat and relaxed. The intention was that we needed to be on the front of our ribs/chest, not on the edge of them. We were to use a 360-degree breath without force. This was tough for me because I had never taken the time to learn how to do it from any instructor I had taken classes from in the past. Strangely enough, change in position and gravity can create new challenges for the breath and diaphragm.
Accordion Breath uses lateral breathing, further emphasizing lateral expansion of the rib cage, while maintaining navel to spine abdominal contraction during different phases of a Pilates class. Lateral thorasic breath stabilizes the spine during the “effort” part of the workout.
At SunstoneFIT, Pilates classes area 45 minutes long. In the opening part of the class, this type of breathing is done to music. The ribs move outward and upward like a bucket handle. Lateral breathing is used in Pilates to help sustain the abdominal contraction as each exercise is performed by any yogi. A stable and strong core is important to ensure all exercises are done effectively and safely.
There are two central benefits to using lateral breathing. By inhaling, yogis are preparing their bodies for strenuous phases of each exercise done in class. Exhaling assists with the navel to spine action, producing an increase of intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure provides protection for the spine during the strenuous phase.
One last benefit of lateral breathing is that this movement also mobilizes the rib cage. A stiff rib cage could impede breathing. The exercise demonstration we did to simulate this style of breathing is one I am all too familiar with from taking so many Pilates classes, one of my favorite functional fitness classes!
We laid on our backs, using resistance bands to wrap about three feet around the lower part of our rib cages. I chose to just wrap my hands around my rib cage, as I do when I take the class. Next, we held the band closed in front of our chests. We inhaled, letting this breath travel down our spines, expanding into our backs, so that we could feel the bands stretching our sides and backs, induced by our breathing. Finally, we exhaled by actively drawing the ribs towards each other as we slowly let our breath out.
The third type of breath our group learned about was Ujjayi Breath, better known as “ocean breath.” The word “Ujjayi” comes from the Sanskrit prefix “ud” added to it and the root “ji,” which means “to be victorious.” Ujjayi means “one who is victorious.” Ujjayi Breath is “victorious breath.”
This breath is a diaphragmatic breath, filling the lower belly, rising to the lower rib cage and finally, moving into the upper chest and throat. Inhalations and exhalations are both activated through the nose. The “ocean sound” that is often heard throughout yoga classes is established by moving the glottis as air passes in and out. Length and speed of the breath is managed by the diaphragm, while strengthening is the purpose of Ujjayi.
Breaths taken in and out are equivalent in duration yet controlled in a way that causes no distress to the yogi. Ujjayi breathing is utilized consistently throughout Power Flow classes, better known as vinyasa classes. By breathing in this manner, a yoga practitioner can maintain a consistent rhythm to his/her breath. Absorbed oxygen helps build energy for the yogi to sustain fluidity throughout practice as toxins are being cleared out of the body. The Ujjayi Breath is most beneficial during transitions into and out of various asanas because it helps practitioners stay present, self-aware and grounded in their practice, giving it a meditative quality. It has been said that 20 minutes of ocean breath equals 20 minutes of aerobic activity.
In class, we used a small straw to do a breathing exercise incorporating this breath. I found that by sitting, I felt more pressure on my spine. It was easier to complete the exercise standing. We also tried four second inhales, two second holds and four second exhales. The goal is to eventually be able to do six second inhales, two second holds and eight second exhales. The overall aim is to produce longer exhales than inhales.
It is simple to learn Ujjayi Breath, but true consistency and mastery takes practice. To start, a yogi needs to be seated comfortably in a meditative posture such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose) or Padmasana (Lotus Pose). The crown of the head is lifted towards the sky to aid lengthening the spine as the chin is adjusted parallel to the earth. The eyes should be closed.
The palms rest on the knees with the thumb and index fingers touching, all other fingers extended. A circuit is created, directing prana towards the brain. Three natural breaths should be taken through the nose. As the belly fills with each inhalation, a yogi should also feel his/her belly draw toward the spine with each exhalation. He/she should gently contract the back of the throat, inhaling slowly through the nose. As the throat is contracted, slow exhales through the nose should remain in occurrence. Each breath should be long, deep and audible, delivered with awareness.
One breath that was briefly discussed, but not demonstrated was Cat/cow Breath in horse stance, or Crouch Curl Breath. This breath is cued during the opening sequence of a Hot Flow class. It combines 360-degree breath and Ujjayi Breath during the warm-up. About three or four rounds of this breath provide adequate movement.
In the Hot Yoga classes at SunstoneFIT, Kapalbhati Breath (Breath of Fire) is done at the end of class to help the body cool down after completing 32 poses. The word kapalbhati is derived from two words: “kapal” meaning “skull” and “bhati,” meaning “shining” or “illuminating.” It is mainly intended for cleaning the cranial sinuses.
Within this breath, a yogi breathes 50-100 times, thus stimulating the brain three to seven times more than normal per round. This breath also releases more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs than normal breathing does.
The best way to practice Kapalbhati breathing is to start by sitting in Virasana Pose, on the heels with knees bent and shins tucked beneath the thighs. Sitting cross-legged is also an option. A yogi breathes in deeply and on the exhale, contracts his/her body, forcing the breath out in a quick, short burst. During the rapid release of the abdomen, the breath should flow into the lungs automatically. To speed up the intensity of this breath, the yogi may take 20 breaths, which suffices for one completed round of Kapalbhati pranayama.
After the last exhalation, it is suggested to inhale deeply through the nose and exhale quickly through the mouth. A total of three rounds is recommended for yoga practice.
Alternate nostril breath or Nadi Shodhana as it is called in Sanskrit, is an easy, but powerful technique that calms the mind, body and emotions. Although there are many different styles, they all serve the purpose of creating balance and regulating the flow of air through the nasal passages. Nadi Shodhana means “clearing the channels of circulation.”
To practice this specific breath type, a yoga practitioner needs to sit tall, making sure his/her spine is straight and his/her heart is open. The left palm relaxes comfortably into the person’s lap, as that individual brings his/her right hand in front of his/her face. With the right hand, both the pointer and middle fingers are brought to rest between the eyebrows, using them as an anchor. The fingers actively being used are the thumb and ring finger.
The yogi closes his/her right nostril with the right thumb, while he/she inhales through the left nostril slowly and steadily. Then the left nostril is closed with the right finger, so both nostrils are held closed, as the yogi asserts his/her breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause. The right nostril is opened as the breath is slowly released through the right side. The yogi then briefly pauses at the bottom of the exhale. The cycle is repeated five to ten times. On occasion, I have used alternate nostril breathing in my own personal mediation practice and it is taught at the beginning of SunstoneFIT’s Pure Flow class.
Alternate nostril breathing reverses stress, but also has many other benefits such as: improving a yogi’s ability to focus the mind, supporting the lungs and respiratory functions, restoring balance in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, while clearing the energetic channels, rejuvenating the nervous system and removing toxins.
Once the breathing aspect of the workshop was completed, Candice transitioned our group into the yoga portion, which included getting acquainted with our feet by completing a few walking and balancing drills. The purpose of the walking drills was to help us understand the correct way to balance and, how using our feet and entire leg affects our walking and balance, as well as general good movement. She provided demonstrations of these drills by having us to model a rotating figure eight, simulating walking forward, a rotating figure eight walking backwards and finally, having us to rotate three points of both our feet on each leg.
The walking drills allowed us yogis to walk forward first at a slow pace, then backwards. Next, we did both at a moderate pace and ended this drill walking forwards and backwards at a quicker pace. We also did some balancing drills that allowed us to practice our ocean breath as we moved through a vinyasa sequence. Each yogi started the sequence with his/her feet together and gradually transitioned into Standing Wind Relieving Pose before stepping back into Warrior I Pose. We repeated this sequence on both the right and left sides, finally ending in Warrior II Pose. The next sequence was a little harder as we returned to standing with our feet together before being cued into Bent Knee Triangle and Balancing Stick Poses, Crescent Lunge, then placing our hands to the floor, ending the flow by stepping our foot forward.
The final sequence was the same, except Half Moon II Pose was added. Every sequence we did was repeated on the right and left sides. Candice ended the workshop by allowing each yogi to have free movement, meaning anyone could stretch or do any yoga poses they chose. This free movement was accompanied by questions.
Steph Galanos, one of my dear and close friends who works the Operations Staff at the SLO location, had nothing but sincere praise for her experience from the workshop.
“For this particular workshop, with a focus on the breath, I learned why each breath style is chosen for each particular class at Sunstone. For a long time, I thought one way of breathing during practice was truly best, as well as the only way.”
Steph also mentioned that Ujjayi Breath has been a part of her practice for a while, which works to create a great sense of heat in the body. In addition to this, she had never known a way to release this heat if her body were to become overwhelmed. She says she learned how to do this during the workshop. She also learned how alternate nostril breathing allows activation of both brain hemispheres, helping her tune more in to the moment during practice.
Her favorite part of the workshop was the fact that it was an open discussion with a heavy focus on technique and body awareness. The balance section of the workshop helped to show everyone just how differently they all are anatomically and that each person’s balance is affected by many varying factors. She stated that learning about how to practice proper foot placement is important so that yogis feel more rooted down and stable during their class.
Steph has many favorite classes at SunstoneFIT, mostly vinyasa classes. She enjoys each one for distinct reasons.
“My favorite classes are most definitely our vinyasa classes—Pure Flow, Power Flow and Hot Flow in that order! They challenge me in different ways, especially when it comes to balance and transitions between postures.”
“Pure Flow has a focus on breathing, stretching and meditation; I always leave feeling more centered and grounded. With Power Flow, I can never get stagnant because it is always a new sequence led by each teacher, so they always bring their own flavor to the class. Hot Flow brings in that fire element and tests my endurance to the extreme!”
My biggest takeaway form the Breath and Balance Workshop was being able to practice the six types of breath and familiarize myself with the characteristics of each one. I do not practice them away from the mat very much but by understanding how each breath type plays a necessary role in my yoga/fitness practice, I am more cognizant of the benefits I am receiving every time I step on my mat and utilize a certain breath type.
I am not just breathing for the sake of existing; I am breathing to better enhance my quality of life as a yoga practitioner.
Getting in Touch:
If you are interested in having Marie Williams come to your studio or cover your event for Dallas Yoga Magazine, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org