THE POWER OF THE BREATH

In Western culture, we really underestimate the value of how our breath relates to our health. In Eastern culture, on the other hand, breathing is thought of as not just anatomical (inhale, exhale) but also as an art. Maybe with the increased popularity of yoga in the West, the awareness of breath as art will become more prevalent.

As yoga practitioners, we learn poses (asana) that help us learn about integrity of form in our posture, balance and movement. But not often enough are we aware of how our breath moves within us as we work on these asana, and throughout our daily movements and habits. This is important, because the breath can help us be aware of the space within our bodies, how the energy flows through and around it, and how focused breathing can create change by opening blocked paths.

One of my most influential teachers has been Dr. John Hannon. He lives in San Luis Obispo, CA, is a Feldenkrais master and an internationally known chiropractor/body worker. He offers so much more than a typical doctor and his quiet and brilliant insights have changed both my yoga practice and my life. He strongly emphasizes is the importance of breath in his practice. For example, he taught me that I can inhale and let my breath create space in my left rear ribcage. He said, “Feldenkrais believed movement quality was determined by the interplay of posture and breath. Without the underpinnings of effective posture, breathing is bound to be physically restricted, and neurologically inhibited.”

As a yoga teacher, I tend to think in terms of poses (asana). Dr. Hannon, through his Feldenkrais perspective, has taught me the richness that is summarized in this yoga-related phrase:

“Asana is how you stabilize your body in space – breath is how you mobilize space in your body.”

This is a quote from my old friend Leslie Kaminoff, the Founder and Director of The Breathing Project, an educational non-profit organization, and also the author of Yoga Anatomy (available on Amazon.com). I think about the implications of this phrase often to remind me of the value of breath. I have found  that there is a universal thread among different cultures and movement techniques that emphasizes the importance of breath.

Here is a simple breathing exercise that Dr. Hannon taught me, using the ideas of both yoga and Feldenkrais: Lie on your back on the floor. As you inhale and your lower abdomen expand, rising up, and imagine pressing your 3rd and 4th lumbar vertebrae onto the floor. What this will do is allow the diaphragm to pull on the ribs, widening the floating ribs, and at the end of the inhalation, the sternum and clavicles will also open. This exercise is a good example of the breath working directly with movement. It is not difficult, as long as you know your anatomy and can recognize where your lumbar vertebrae, sternum and clavicles are. Try it!

I hope I have shown how important it is to emphasize the importance of the breath in our practice. Combined with posture, it is essential to how we can join body and mind for a better quality of life.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

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