Explain the difference between awareness of uncontrolled habitual breathing and conscious controlled breathing. Discuss how you would introduce breath awareness to your students in a class situation, including a variety of possible basic breathing techniques
15th March 2010
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika Introduction Breathing is a fundamental part of life. It is something that happens naturally every second of every day. It is the first thing we do when we come into the world and the last thing that happens when we leave it.
It is important for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, it provides sufficient oxygen for the correct and efficient functioning of very body cell and allows the body to get rid of noxious gaseous by-products of metabolism. It is also important for relaxation and helps to release tension.
However, many people are unaware of their breath and breathing is something that some have forgotten how to do ‘properly’. While as babies and toddler we are masters of the art, as we grow older, the pressures of life take their toll resulting in many of us losing touch with what we learnt intuitively at birth. Despite all this, breathing can be consciously controlled - and we can see examples of this in everyday life, such as in talking and singing etc.
Breathing is a fundamental part of yoga practise and the subject has been peppering the pages of important yoga texts for centuries. In part one of this essay, I am going to look at the differences between uncontrolled habitual breathing and conscious controlled breathing. In Part 2, I will address how to introduce breath awareness into a class situation including a variety of breathing techniques.
Part 1 – Explain the difference between uncontrolled habitual breathing and conscious controlled breathing Many students new to yoga will breathe shallowly as a result of bad habits derived from bad posture, stress, pain or tension. These students may therefore only use the upper part of their lungs, resulting in small portions of oxygen being absorbed. Unfortunately, this is remarkably common and is known as uncontrolled habitual breathing. It happens unconsciously and people do it without realising.
To allow yoga students to move from uncontrolled habitual breathing to conscious controlled breathing, they need to focus on getting rid of their bad breathing habits and to bring awareness to the breath.
It is also important for students to understand that the breath is composed of three components: abdominal, thoracic and clavicular. Full yogic breath happens when all of these three components work in a steady and controlled manner with a good proportion of lung capacity being used. When students have developed this full yogic breath, then they have developed conscious controlled breathing.
Part 2 – Discuss how you would introduce breath awareness to your students in a class situation, including a variety of possible basic breathing techniques When introducing breath awareness to new students, it is important to start from the beginning and bring awareness to the breath.
First of all, I would explain to my class the mechanics of breathing. For example, I would explain about the diaphragm - a thick muscular sheet separating the chest from the abdomen – and how it plays a significant part in breathing. As we inhale, it moves downwards towards the stomach, and oxygen is drawn down through the trachea and into the lungs. On an exhalation, the diaphragm moves upwards, which expels the air (Khalsa, page 93).
I would then get my students to witness the breath as it stands naturally. This can be done by simply asking your students to sit cross legged and breathing normally. After a few minutes, I would ask them to reflect on what they observed; the length of the inhalations and exhalations, how it felt and if there was any tension.
Another good way to bring awareness to the breath is to get your students to work with a partner. Ask them to sit cross legged facing each other. Get them to close their eyes and begin ‘observing’ the breath as it stands naturally. After about 5 minutes, ask them to discuss the following questions: Where in your body did you feel the breath? Where do you notice the most movement? Describe the rate of breathe, describe the length of breath, describe the quality of breath. The idea is that your students will begin to re-establish a conscious link between the mind and breath.
I would then introduce breath with movement, for example, with a dynamic posture such as ‘Cat’. Get them to exhale as they lift their heads up to look at the ceiling and inhale and as they draw their abdominal muscles in and look down to the floor. By doing this posture they should be able to understand the link between breath and movement and how they work so closely together.
Another exercise involves asking your students to lie in a semi-supine position and breathe normally. Allow them to observe how their hands feel as they move up and down the abdomen with each inhale and exhale. If they are breathing deeply, they should be able to feel their abdomen rising up and down. If they breath shallowly they will not feel the rise to the same extent.
Finally, another good breath awareness technique is to allow your students to sit or stand with their hands either side of their rib cage. With each inhale and exhale, allow your class to feel the side to side movement of the ribs. With this exercise, they will be witnessing the dynamic abdominal breath of the diaphragm as well as some external intercostals on deeper breaths.
Introducing a variety of basic breathing techniques Once students have been given the chance to observe their breath, you can move on to introducing a variety of breathing techniques. Below are examples of a few of the main ones I would use.
Three part breath – This exercise allows students to observe their breath from three different areas of the body. First, ask your class to put their finger tips on their abdomen and breathe normally. Then ask them to move their hands to the ribcage and again, breathe normally. Finally, students should put their hands on their collarbone and breathe normally. In all three positions, students should observe the breathe, noticing how each inhale and exhale feels and the difference between the three locations.
Step breathing – Ask students to inhale using short sharp breaths until the lungs are full. They should then release the air from the lungs with one long exhale. Then they should reverse the pattern, taking one long, smooth inhale, and with the exhale release the air from the lungs in short, sharp exhales.
Breathing imagery – This next exercise encourages students to use imagery as a breathing technique. Ask your students to inhale, taking in positive thoughts. Then with the exhale, they should expel from their minds all their bad thoughts. This breathing technique can be very powerful and therapeutic and can be good for students suffering from depression or other emotional problems.
Breath with movement – Get your students to lie on their backs and with each long inhale, they should bring their arms over their heads, so that their arms reach the floor behind. With each exhale, they should bring the arms back to the sides of their body. You should encourage your students to observe how this feels and point out how natural moving with the breath feels. You could also get them to try exhaling as they bring their arms over the body and inhaling as they bring them back. This should feel awkward for the class and therefore highlight how important it is to coordinate movement with the breath in an appropriate way.
Working with partners – Working with a partner in yoga is a great way of practising breathing and there are a variety of exercises that can be done to develop good breathing practises.
For example, ask your students to sit back to back with a partner of a similar height. Ask them to adjust their posture until they are equally supported by and supporting your partner. They should then bring their palms together and rest the knuckles of the thumbs in the notch at the bottom of the breast bone. Ask your students to close their eyes and begin to bring awareness to the breath. They should observe how their ribs are rising and falling against their hands and how their back is expanding and contracting against their partner’s. They should then turn their attention to how their partner is breathing and slowly begin to adjust their breathing pattern to match their partner’s. Your students should be encouraged to find a common breath which meets somewhere in the middle (p. 32-35, Carroll and Kimata).
Preparing for the ujjayi – The ujjayi breath is a way regulating the flow of the breath. By contracting the epiglottis, the flap of cartilage at the back of the throat narrows the airway resulting in the breath slowing down. Although the ujjayi breath is considered a pranayama and therefore not suitable for beginners to yoga, it is often taught early on as it is considered so fundamental to yoga practise. It is especially useful in helping students to work the breath with movement.
Personal experience For me the breathing techniques that I have learnt through practising yoga have been invaluable to me throughout my adult life. For instance, as a PGCE student, my vocal cords were under constant use every day for two terms. Many of my fellow students really struggled with voice projection and ended up ‘loosing their voices’ at some point throughout the PGCE year. However, I really felt that the breathing that I had ‘relearnt’ as an adult had come into its own and consciously breathing from deep in my lungs, I was able to cope much better with projecting my voice on a daily basis over a sustained period. Many teachers suffer from damaged vocal cords and I’m sure that yoga would help many of them.
Another example of how the breathing I have learnt through yoga has helped me, was when I gave birth to my baby boy. I am convinced that it is the deep abdominal breathing that I have developed throughout my years of practising yoga that significantly helped me through my labour.
Conclusion We have seen in this assignment how important breathing is in yoga practise. We have learnt that it is essential that students who are new to yoga learn how to breath properly – that is deeply in a conscious and controlled manner. Such students will first of all have to bring awareness to their breath and observe it. A variety of breathing techniques can then be introduced.
Once a student has developed basic breath awareness, it is possible to move on to more advanced breathing techniques and ultimately pranayama.
Bibliography Carroll, Cain & Kimata, Lori (2000) Partner Yoga, Rodale Research
Khalsa, Shakta Kaur (2001) Guide to Yoga, DK Publishing
Lark, Liz (2001) Yoga for Life, Carlton Books
Purna, Svami (1998) Yoga – A Practical Introduction, Element Books Ltd
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre (1996) Yoga Mind & Body, DK Publishing
Sturgess, Steven (2000) The Yoga Book, Element Books Ltd
Hatha Yoga Pradipika (check spelling!)