In the yoga classes last term we explored the feelings of movement and stillness. There were complicated movements that really got our minds concentrating, simple flowing movements and then bringing the body to stillness – standing, seated and lying on the front and back of the body. And we asked ourselves… can we ever be really still?
In the yogic teachings we are guided to bring the body to stillness to help bring the mind to stillness. Within the Pranayama (control of the breath) practice we observe the points at the ends of the inhale and exhale – where the tide of air changes direction. It is here that our body can be stiller, in this pause, which is called the Kumbhaka.
Try this simple practice – sitting in a comfortable position, breathe in and out through the nose, smooth 3 part breathing if you are familiar with it. Count 5 for the inhale and 5 for the exhale. Watch for the pauses at the end of the inhale and exhale (don’t feel as though you are holding the breath, just let the pauses feel like natural pauses). Practice for about 5 minutes. Watch for the spaces to arise, feeling the stillness in your body and your mind. If you feel dizzy at any time stop the practice. It should feel comfortable and relaxing.
If you have blood pressure issues it’s best to work under the guidance of a teacher rather than on your own with this kind of work.
In our yoga classes this term we have begun to work with Kapalbhati Pranayama. This is a practice which is cleansing and energising – the forceful exhalation clears out the nasal passageways and the pulling force of the abdomen stimulates and strengthens the abdominal muscles and organs. When you have got the hang of this practice it literally takes 5 minutes and you feel strong and ready for anything! It will make sits up a thing of the past.
The way this makes you feel so good is because the blood is enriched with more oxygen than your usual breathing which is very good for your circulation, renewing body tissue and helping your nerves and metabolism. There really is no other practice in any sport or exercise like it – which can make it difficult to understand and get into.
The following guide is meant as a supplement to our class work. It’s always best to learn from an experience teacher and exercise caution – building up the tummy muscles gradually and the bodies’ capacity to deal with the changes. If you feel dizzy at any time you should stop and sit still until you feel better. People suffering from high blood pressure, eye problems, hernia or recovering from any abdominal injury or operation should not do this practice. IF IT HURTS OR MAKES YOU DIZZYTHENSTOP
The body should be prepared over some weeks before even having a go. A gentle way to do this is to lay on your back in the semi supine position and work with leg raises and apanasana (knees to chest) to bring your awareness to your abdominal muscles and strengthen them. In class we worked with a routine called Mooncat (which I have given as half term homework). This sequence of postures includes the cat and cow, half moon pose and plank – all of which work the abdominal muscles.
Further preparation is required to understand abdominal breathing and our breathing process in general. Visualise air travelling into the body thought the nose and down into the abdomen allowing the abdomen to swell and then visualise the air travelling back out up through the body and out through the nose squeezing the abdominal muscles increasingly tighter with each round. You can begin practising in the semi supine position and then move onto a sitting posture. For more information about abdominal breathing read this post.
To practice Kapalbhati – (it is very important to have taken the steps to prepare, this lays the foundation for your success)
Sit in a comfortable seated posture (one that you can hold and feels as if your back is upright and if someone came along and gave you a shove you wouldn’t fall over)
The back must be upright and the crown of the head up towards the ceiling
The hands resting on the knees, shoulders and elbows relaxed – use your favourite mudra
Close the eyes and relax the whole body – especially the abdominal area
Inhale a deep abdominal breath and then pull the abdominal muscles back to force and exhale back out through the nostrils
The next inhale happens passively as you relax the abdomen then pull the abdominals back again to force the exhale out through the nose.
Continue pumping the air out like this for 10 – 20 rounds or less if your tummy feels tired.
Relax and then take a deep slow inhale, pause gently then exhale smoothly and slowly.
This concludes 1 round, begin again and practice up to 3 rounds.
Always practice with awareness – keep your mind on what you are doing. Stop at once if you feel faint or dizzy.
Abdominal breathing is the most efficient and natural way to breath. It’s great to watch dogs, cats and children sleeping and watching their little abdomens expanding and contracting with the breath – it’s nature – how we are all meant to breathe. However, it’s a technique that is forgotten by most of us by the time we reach adulthood.
Tense abdominal muscles can be the result of continually holding the tummy in, tight clothing, poor posture, back ache or emotional issues. All of which are often totally unconscious. Once correct, natural breathing is restored and becomes part of your daily life improvements in health and wellbeing can be quite amazing.
As breathing is the most vital process of the body, even slight improvements can give benefits to the practitioner. The breath influences the activities of each and every cell, and is intimately linked to the performance of the brain. Abdominal breathing is a preparatory practice for Pranayama (control of the life force) and encourages correct breathing. Slow, rhythmic breathing brings about a calm state of mind, which in turn calms the nervous system and leads to less stress in the body. Deep breathing in this manner increases absorption of energy into the body and keeps the heart healthy and strong.
We practice abdominal breathing by enhancing the movement of the diaphragm and minimising the movement of the ribcage. I think it helps to visualise the air moving into the body through the nose and travelling down into the abdomen (this does not really happen) and then visualise the air travelling back up through the torso and out through the nose. This movement allows full use of the diaphragm and the lower lobes of the lungs to fill and empty (the parts that don’t get used fully when the diaphragm can’t move).
Try practicing at different times of the day – when you have a little time waiting for something or when you are in bed last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Also try this type of breath in more difficult circumstances – say after a meal or when wearing a tight waist band, it will help you to appreciate where you are making life difficult for yourself! And finally, try this abdominal breathing when you are in a stressful situation and see if it works to reduce your anxiety.