Principles of Open Awareness: Expansive Breath

Yoga revolves around breath. All human life revolves around breath. To be alive requires breathing. As long as you’re breathing, you’re alive. When your breath stops, your life stops. Breath is literally life.  

It wouldn’t be surprising if the first time you consciously notice your breathing today is right now. Given its upmost importance, it’s funny that our breathing can go unnoticed and unappreciated. What a simple way to improve our well-being and yet, how easy it is for us to ignore.  

Try taking a really deep breath right now. Deep, deep inhale and a smooth, slow exhale.  

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I take a deep breath it feels forced and kind of weird. If I’m not paying attention it can even make me dizzy. What’s that about?  

Well for one, forcing a huge inhale by vacuuming air into your body isn’t the most efficient way to make space for your breath. Depending on your breathing pattern, you might be using a less-than-optimal technique to draw the air in.  

Take a journey with me here. I promise it’ll make sense later.  

Think about a cartoon where someone opens the door on a flying jet airplane and they get sucked out, only holding onto the inside of the plane by their fingertips.

This isn’t just because of the speed of travel, it’s because at 30,000 feet, the air pressure inside the plane is much higher than the air pressure outside the plane because the cabin is pressurized for the safety and comfort of the people on board. 

Air always flows from high pressure to low pressure. When our cartoon friend opens the airplane door, the pressure between the cabin and the outside atmosphere rapidly equalizes. Result: the air and our friend get sucked from the high pressure space in the plane to the low pressure space outside the plane and our friend must hold on for dear life.

In a less dramatic way, this is what’s happening when you breathe.

When you inhale, your diaphragm moves down, which creates empty space and lower air pressure inside your chest compared to higher air pressure in the outside world. Air moves from high pressure to low pressure. So, air gets drawn down into your lungs. This temporarily equalizes the pressure between your chest and the outside world. Voila. You’ve inhaled.

When you exhale your diaphragm relaxes back up, which presses the air out of your lungs. Then the whole process repeats. Diaphragm moves down. Low pressure zone is created in your chest. Air flows into your lungs to equalize pressure. Diaphragm moves up. Air is pressed out of your lungs. This continues about 20,000 times a day for life.  

But wait, there’s more! You have muscles between each of your individual ribs called intercostal muscles. These muscles work to spread your ribs away from one another when you inhale to make even more space in your chest for the air pressure exchange to take place.

You’ve also got supplemental breathing muscles in your neck that lift your top ribs up. Some people overuse these supplemental muscles and forget about their strong diaphragm. This can result in neck pain, chest breathing, and less oxygen to go around.

Some people have tight intercostal muscles which limit the expansion of their ribs. Other’s hold tension in their abdomen or wear restrictive clothing, which limits the movement of their diaphragm and therefore limits their breath.

Like I said, many of us have less-than-optimal breathing patterns. And because breath is life, trouble breathing has direct impacts on our health and well-being.  

Let’s do a little more breathing together. This time, don’t turn on the vacuum. 

Breathe normally as you read.  Just notice your natural breathing and focus on how your ribcage expands and contracts. Focus especially on your lower ribs. This is where your diaphragm is. 

Now to take a deeper breath, let your ribcage expand even more. Make space inside your ribcage and observe how the air naturally flows into your lungs to take up that space. Exhale smooth and slow.

Does your deep breathing now feel any different than before? 

This week we explore the expansiveness of your breath. It only takes a bit of focus to notice, appreciate, and even help out this force of life that always has been and always will be with you, as long as you’re alive.