June 4, 2012

The Miracle of Breath. ~ Genieve Burley

How to use focused breath to heal your back, deepen your practice and connect with the calm within.

I know it has been said a million times in yoga that the breath is the key to the practice. However, until you have the actual moment of connecting to truth, it can go through one ear and out the other.

Breath is so much more than just breathing, it can tell us about the health of our heart, the space in our lungs, whether we are sick, sad, excited or nervous. Our breath is controlled automatically if we don’t train it. Simple automatic breathing is enough to stay alive. Controlled, focused breath enables you to feel the pleasure of being alive and ride the storms that will come your way.

The three areas that I feel training the breath has the most potent effect:

  1. By utilizing all space available for breath, the muscles and joints of the thoracic spine are mobilized and motor control is improved.
  2. With breath focused in the area of the rib cage versus the belly, the body is in a better position to get deeper in postures and activate lower bandhas.
  3. Focusing on breath in times of calm will train the body to be able to use the breath to create calm in times of stress.
Breath and the Back

Our lungs have a huge capacity for air, yet most of us only breathe into a small area of the space that is available. Getting in a larger volume of air is more efficient at delivering oxygen to the tissues. When there is more oxygen in contact with blood in the capillaries of the lungs it can more rapidly be distributed to all of the organs in the body. Our chest is designed to make breathing as efficient as possible. There are many muscles attaching to the back, ribs and internal organs that assist in breathing. When full capacity of breath is not reached, these muscles and joints become stiff and less responsive.

In yoga, we focus on getting the breath to all areas of the lungs, from side to side, front and back. Breathing into these areas versus the stomach will tone up the levator costorum, intercostalis, multifidus and many other important spinal stabilizing muscles. It will also increase the mobility of the rib and spinal joints allowing for deeper breath and greater chest movement. Focusing on the expansion of breath into the sides of the rib, back and upper lungs will improve lung function and well as exert a healing effect on the back.

Breath and Postures

Learning how to maximize your practice by using the breath takes a lot of time. There are many levels to using the breath and learning one connection will open the door to another. The first thing we generally learn is to be conscious of the breath, that we have control over the breath. The second thing is often to learn how to create an audible, heat producing breath (ujjayi). The third is to connect the breath to an inward focus. This means to connect to one’s own body and along with the drishti, creating an intention to focus on the breath and single point of drishti to calm the mind. The fourth is learning where to direct the air as it enters the lungs. (As discussed above, full lung breath laterally, anteriorly and posteriorly in the upper rib cage.)

When we are able to direct the breath to the upper rib cage, the lower abdominals can draw in activating uddiyana bandha and mulha bandha. With these bandhas activated, postures that require this action, such as arm balances, can be done with greater ease. The same benefits will apply to deep twists. It is easy to lose the breath in twists as the lower abdominal organs are being compressed. Drawing the breath into the open upper spaces of the lung will allow for free breathing while the organs are massaged and detoxed.

Breath and Calm

The breath is always in rhythm with our emotions and health. When we are relaxed the breath is long and easy, during exercise the breath is strong and rapid and in times of fear and stress the breath is shallow and irregular.

By training your breath in the daily practice of yoga and pranayama (breath work), you are conditioning your brain to improve the efficiency of breathing. Just as in sport development we train motor patterns to accomplish incredible athletic feats, the brain develops motor patterns in the nerves and muscles that control the breath. When you have a regular practice of yoga, breathing is conditioned and the muscles are more easily recruited in times of stress.

In yoga practice we use the breath to manage physical discomfort when postures are held and muscles are fatigued. We derive strength from focusing on each inhalation and exhalation through the nose. This is the most potent antagonist of anxiety. By training regularly to control the breath we are also stimulating the parasympathetic (calming) system of the brain. From there we are able to withdraw from the discomfort of repetitive and fearful thoughts by redirecting the brain’s focus back to breath. This is an amazing tool to have in dealing with stress, anxiety and fear.

The breath truly is the most important part of practice. As my teacher Srivatsa Ramaswami said recently “The breath is the body, the mind follows the breath, therefore mind and body are united.”


Dr. Genieve Burley is chiropractor, yoga instructor and dedicated yogi. She has over 11 years in the health and fitness industry. Genieve has extensive experience writing for magazines, journals and television appearances on the topic of rehabilitation, yoga and nutrition. She lives in Vancouver with her family.


Editor: Seychelles Pitton


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