How to breathe effectively, in yoga, postpartum and daily life

The respiratory process is a perfect metaphor for tuning into an infinite dynamic

A constant, unconscious process, often we aren’t aware of the physiology of the breath.

We might typically breath shallowly, only inhaling a proportion of our capacity of air, or what is sometimes called ‘chest breathing’. Particularly in my experience as a female, I have not felt socially conditioned to truly expand my belly, and perhaps unconsciously ‘suck in’ without even realising (except for in pregnancy, but then there can be other reasons why deep belly breaths are hard – which I’ll talk about more below).

We may not necessarily commonly benefit from a full and deep inhale, where we release any tension or holding in the belly and pelvic floor and deeply inhale by expanding to truly take up space.

As such, we may not necessarily benefit from a full and deep inhale, where we release any tension or holding in the belly and pelvic floor and deeply inhale by expanding to truly take up space.

To access the full capacity and potential of our breathing we need to take deep, expansive breaths into the belly, but also into the sides and back of the rib cage, all the way up into the chest and collarbones.

For most people this isn’t the common way that they breathe, but it is something that we can incorporate into our movement practice or our everyday lives, so that we can benefit from deep breaths.

When we are pregnant, particularly through trimester two and three, the pressure of the expanding baby, placenta and fluid in the abdomen can push the organs and even the diaphragm such that it can be more difficult to take expansive and deep breaths to fill the lungs, hence why it’s common for women to feel out of breath (there are other reasons as well, including increased blood volume etc.).

It might be helpful to learn more about the basic biomechanics of breathing

One of the primary muscles responsible for breathing is the diaphragm. It’s a muscle – kind of like a parachute – that separates the thorax from the abdomen. It has a surprisingly little-known relationship to the pelvic floor. The below diagram depicts the relationship between breathing and contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Try this practice yourself

On the inhale, the diaphragm contracts, but the belly softens. Release and relax any tension in the pelvis, the hip flexors and glutes. On the exhale, the diaphragm releases and the core contracts, to expel the air from the lungs. Here, we can lift and tone the pelvic floor muscles to ensure we expel every last drop of air from that breath before we inhale again.

A tip I learnt from Kara Duval is to imagine a light shining from the pelvic floor when it is completely relaxed, then dimming that light by contracting and toning the pelvic floor, but not squeezing so tightly we prevent all light from “shining” out, as this is unnecessary force and might engage other parts of the body we don’t need to recruit.

Many people can feel like they’re quite stiff and tight through the thoracic spine (which is basically the upper body) and as such can’t expand their rib cage as deeply as they might like to – this is totally something that you can work to release over time.

The sorts of poses that help with allowing the body to release tension and rigidity so that you can take deeper breaths include side bends, opening the chest by doing thoracic extension or back-bending postures (even very simple ones), and twists. Practising poses that help us expand the rib cage is an effective way to create more space around the heart and lungs and take deeper breaths literally expanding the space that we can take up in the world and the amount of breath we can benefit from. Anecdotally, people even report feeling a release of stored emotions or trapped feelings when we release and mobilise the thoracic spine.

Whilst we don’t want to get too hung up on “perfect breathing”, such that it distracts us from being in flow when we practice movements or exercises, it can be helpful to bear in mind that typically, before adding external load, or during yoga poses, we release the pelvic floor on the inhale and on the exhale we lift and tone the pelvic floor, whilst we contract and brace through the 360 degrees of the core.

In summary

On an inhale, the belly softens, the diaphragm contracts, it drops down, to allow space for the lungs to expand and inflate. On an exhale, the diaphragm rises, the air is pushed out of the lungs and pressure on the pelvic floor is released.

Expansion mentally and energetically

This pattern of expansion and contraction is something that can be interesting to explore in our mindset, feeling body, moods and interpersonal relationships. For example, often times in early motherhood I feel an intense contraction of my focus, such that it might even become an anxiety or an over-rumination on my baby and what it might need and what I need to do next and the house and the domestic realm. This can become quite intense and, whilst it’s delicious to be in a baby bubble, it can sometimes feel like the walls are closing in.

A mindfulness practice that might be useful to explore is the idea of expanding your sphere of attention or awareness in a given moment.

This might include becoming aware of broader sensations outside of your immediate compelling thinking mind. It might include sounds or even using your imagination into the future, not to ruminate, but rather to recognise that this moment in time is brief and there are so many other aspects of you, your life and your baby’s life yet to unfold.

Equally, sometimes when we spend too much time seeking to please others or engage beyond what we can really manage, it can feel like we’ve “expanded” too much, and we need to contract and restore and reconnect with our energy – only you know what you need.

OK, go with me for this last bit:

There are various ancient yogic teachings, and scientists of course, that suggest that everything our world is vibrating or “pulsing” at different levels of frequency at all times. I know myself, when I can commit to a seated meditation and am able to reach a state of genuine stillness, even momentarily (rare!), I can recognise that even when I am “not moving”, the body is always subtly in motion. I guess we are cells and atoms, after all.

The respiratory and cardiovascular systems are the perfect metaphor for this tuning into this expansion and contraction of life, at the micro and macro levels. You might choose to expand your field of awareness even in everyday moments, such as being conscious of the breath when you listen to someone speak, or being conscious of the sounds around you outside of your house as you rock or feed your baby, or being conscious of the sensations in your body as you push the pram, scanning, listening without judgement.

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