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Feb 2012

"take hold of the strap, and as you stretch, breathe into your hamstrings..."

Sound familiar? We use the word breath a lot in yoga class. Take three deep breaths. Surrender to the breath. Bring the breath into that tight muscle area. Such a variety of meanings! Makes sense, given that the words for breathing and spirit have linked roots - think inspiration and respiration.

But maybe it can get a little confusing. What precisely do we mean when we saybreathe into the...?

* on one literal level, we breathe air into the throat and lungs - that is as far as air, the gaseous mix that includes oxygen and carbon dioxide, gets drawn into the body. And while the lungs are large, they are fairly high in the ribs, wrapping around either side of the heart.

* on another level of physiology, we breath through the lungs into the whole body. The lungs are like inverted trees, whose leaves, the alveoli, extract oxygen from the air and sent it via the bloodstream into every cell. In return, the 'exhale' of the cells returns carbon dioxide through the lungs and back into the atmosphere. Interestingly, the careful design of the body ensures that our lung capacity is over engineered to ensure that we get sufficient oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, so even if we are not breathing 'well', we typically are getting all the oxygen that our body needs for optimal function.

Illustration from Wikipedia - Thoracic Diaphragm

* On a movement level, the primary muscle of respiration is the diaphragm. As we inhale, it contracts down to create the lower pressure above which draws air into the lungs. Doing so, it compresses the abdominal organs below, bringing movement into the belly, the kidneys and the sacrum. When we say 'breath into the belly', it's really that displaced movement we are experiencing. When we are tense (hmm, sound familiar?) we restrict that movement, blocking the diaphragm's soothing and life giving waves of relaxation and vitality to the organs. Arguably, this is one of the primary values of yoga practice - liberating the breath to move our body into the parasympathetic, nicknamed the rest and digest, phase of the nervous system. Indeed, in the aryuvedic system of traditional Indian medicine, it is considered that the lungs pump the heart rather than vice versa.

* How about those hamstrings? No, we are not bringing air to that muscle. And there is already sufficient oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, so we are not bringing more oxygen. Nor is there the obvious connection to movement that we feel with the belly or the rib cage. When I use these words (which are most likely to show up in my Thursday evening Deep Stretch class at OmBase.org) it's more about the mind/body connection. I am inviting a greater body awareness to this present moment - by noticing whether we are on the inhale or exhale phase of the breath, we typically let go somewhat of our mental agenda, our striving to achieve the stretch, and check in more to how the body actually feels. Then, with the exhale phase of the breath, there is a subtle letting go throughout our whole mind/body continuum, an opportunity to soften and deepen into the relaxation and lengthening of the muscle.

It is said that the breath is the bridge between the mind and body. I think this is the greatest gift that mindful breathing brings to our yoga practice.

Namaste - Eugene
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