- Vicki Shields
Is your Yoga practice stressing you out?
Do you ever feel like your breath is compromised when trying to achieve the perfect yoga posture. It may be that you are shortening the breath and confusing the signals to your nervous system.
During a normal day, our senses can be bombarded with all kinds of stimuli: the everyday stress of work; kids; traffic; not to mention the endless tasks we have on a daily basis. We can soon feel like we are off balance and stressful situations dominate the mind which forces the breath to become shallow and rapid. If anxiety takes over, it feels like we cannot breathe and the nervous system is on alert. This is the fight or flight response of our body. It's the body's natural coping mechanism to stress. When the body is exposed to continuous stress, it has a negative effect on the body which leads to an inflammatory environment of the cells which is the trigger for much dis-ease in the body.
Then someone suggests going to a Yoga Class. Breathing deeply maybe the suggestion to relax body and mind, this may feel like a challenge in itself as we may have developed bad habits and only utilise a small proportion of our lungs. Of course it’s not just important to breathe when doing Yoga postures, it’s about how you manage the body to aid the breathing process. The first step is to allow the abdomen to soften, as this particular area becomes tense when we are overcome by the emotions. Breathing into the belly allows it to soften and we are starting to relax the body. The next area to focus on is the area around the lower ribs around the diaphragm, this can become affected by stress and tight and weak muscles result in a shortening of the breath, we need to open this space but it can feel a bit like stretching a new balloon, at first it feels tight and restricted but over time and with practice it will feel like there is more space. This focused or conscious breathing comes in three parts:
2. lower ribs 3. top of the chest.
If you place one hand on the lower abdomen and the other at the top of the chest it will help to maintain the focus on these three areas.
If we can extend the breath so it is full and deep, it can positively influence the function of every cell. Switching the breath from shallow to deep diaphragmatic breathing has immense benefits for both body and mind. To deepen the exhale, more focus is required to engage the pelvic floor by engaging the muscles of the lower abdomen. This results in shifting the activity of the nervous system to a more relaxed mode as an exhale is technically parasympathetic, in simple terms this means that focusing on the exhale and releasing it slowly relaxes you.
Science supports the knowledge that Patanjali defined in the Yoga Sutras thousands of years ago - that mind and breath are connected. If the mind is anxious and the body stressed, the breath becomes shallow and rapid. If we focus on consciously expanding the breath and eventually slowing down the whole breathing cycle, we have the potential to become masters of the mind rather than the mind controlling us.
During some Yoga postures the muscles of the lower abdomen get switched on and can be felt strongly, especially in such postures as Navasana (the boat pose). If these muscles are weak, you may well find your boat sinks and it is difficult to maintain an even breath. This can indicate the core needs to be strengthened, helping your ability to breathe deeply and lengthen the exhale. As we know the exhale is relaxing for body and mind.
We can build this connection from the ground up, first in standing asana, engaging the feet, lifting through the ball of the big toe for example, strengthening the connection to the legs, pelvic floor and building support through the spine. The solar plexus, located at the upper abdomen, is a major processing site for stress. Keeping the length through the spine in asana can prevent the breath being compromised. For example, when there is a movement forward from the pelvis, such as in Uttanasana or swallow diving forward in sun salutes, the spine needs to stay long and the heart open so that there is no gripping or pinching which would only add tension and stress and back to square one.
The aim of a yoga posture defined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is ‘Sthira Sukham Asanam’, a relaxed supported asana, from where we can feel centred, focused and free from stress.
What’ s the difference between Pranayama and Deep Breathing?
Pranayama is more than just deep breathing. It should never be considered to be deep breathing but rather a gradual slowing down of the breathing cycle to reach the ultimate state of complete silencing of the breathing activity. Pranayama is the management of the internal pressure by manipulating and controlling the pelvic, abdominal and chest muscles. With precise control of the inhale, exhale and retention of the breath, along with the use of bandhas or locks, the body becomes a controlled environment for breathing and there can be a smooth control over the physical air, which in turn, affects the internal pressure and nervous functioning. This leads to emotional strength and balance.
Pranayama is the art of listening to the breath and giving space to the currents of prana or sensations that move through the body. It directs the attention inwards and focuses our attention on inner space, bringing focus and concentration to the mind. The mind can then move into deeper states of awareness and stillness. These steps of Yoga are termed Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi.
Pranayama channelises or re-directs the behaviour of the mind so it laser sharp; the mind becomes less reactive to situations; we are more able to respond to situations without being dragged down by negative emotions and we can more easily move past inhibitions and limitations which hold us back from experiencing who we would like to become. Over time, we can become masters of the mind instead of the mind controlling us.
So the victory of Yoga is to overcome those internal battles within us that keep us bound to suffering, divided in our thoughts and slaves to negative emotions. When we build a better awareness of the breath, the space that it inhabits, it creates gaps in our thinking, in turn helping us to focus and direct thoughts more positively. With conscious awareness to the breath we feel more present and the relationship with ourselves improves. We feel like there is more time as stress is reduced and the mind is less reactive, not only do we get to know our selves better the relationship with others improves too.
We begin to see and feel the unity behind all living beings, that essentially we are all in this together.
Gratitude to my teachers Sri OP Tiwariji and Paul Dallaghan for their wisdom and inspiration , helping to shape my understanding of the path of Yoga.
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