If you don’t breathe, you die. It is very simple. “Hasta la vista, baby,” as Arnie might say. Fortunately we don’t have to think about breathing 24 hours a day or we would not be able to sleep and that would be very annoying and inconvenient indeed.
Unfortunately, because we don’t have to think about breathing, many of us don’t. And that’s a shame because aside from being important, the breath is very interesting and, moreover, awareness of the breath can transform your life. Really.
Awareness of the Breath
It’s a pretty big call to say awareness of the breath can transform your life some of you might say. But have you ever really stopped to listen to it? Feel it? Have you ever noticed how it changes when you are anxious or when you cry those great big heaving sobs we all do from time to time? Have you ever noticed the effect of taking a few deliberate long, slow, deep breaths can have on you? If the answer is no, see if you can remember to take a few of them next time you start to feel overwhelmed by any emotion and see what happens. And, if you can remember to take such breaths when you are doing difficult or ‘scary’ postures in yoga, you will notice a huge difference.
A part of your yoga practice always includes breath awareness. Sometimes this is just at the beginning of the class, but, as you become more experienced, you will find that you become aware of the breath as you practice. As the awareness increases, and as your practice develops, you will come to be able to consciously use the breath to assist you in your practice, and your day-to-day life.
Breath awareness helps connect you to the present moment, which is why it is often used at the beginning of a class. It also is the first step in learning to control the breath.
There is a lot of anatomy and physiology about breathing that you can read out there, and I am going to grossly over-simplify it. I am not an expert and if you want to read more then do a Google search using the key words “Leslie Kaminoff”, “Roger Cole”, or “H. David Coulter” and “breathing” and you will find some excellent reading material by highly qualified yogis. Here, I just want to outline a few different types of breathing. To do this, I will start with giving a really simplified version of how we breathe.
First, you have ribs. Your ribcage holds and protects all sorts of important things, for instance your heart and your lungs. Your lungs are basically ‘stuck’ to your chest wall (held in place by a vacuum that exists between the outer surface of the lungs and the inner surface of the chest wall). This means if your ribcage expands, your lungs also expand and if your ribcage gets smaller then the lungs will too.
[Obscure but interesting fact #1: if you were to get stabbed in your chest the vacuum that holds your lungs to the chest wall would be penetrated and the lung would then collapse. Because your lung collapsed you would not be able to breathe. Because you have two lungs this would probably not be deadly unless both sides of your ribcage were penetrated although you would definitely need to go to a hospital. In general, it is a good idea not to get stabbed].
Your ribcage can expand because of muscles that you have between the ribs (called intercostals). These muscles can expand and contract and, as they do, the ribs (and the lungs) move with them. The movement can be enhanced using other muscles as well. It is helpful to think of your ribcage as a three-dimensional structure that can expand in all directions. Importantly, the contents of the ribcage can change shape and volume.