Natural Breathing

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we describe ways to encourage natural, effortless breathing.

Objective

Become proficient in the hallmarks and benefits of natural breathing and ways to promote conditions for an effortless breath.

Description

Provide up to seven more names for Natural Breathing, or the expansion and contraction of the mid-body as the diaphragm moves. Describe some of the many benefits of natural breathing and simple breathing techniques. Since natural breathing is by definition effortless, explain why it needs to be taught. Describe the hallmarks of natural breathing and some simple ways to encourage natural, effortless breathing. Describe Belly Breathing and the Three-Part Breath. Provide a perspective on whether your visualization instruction to students should be to inhale up and exhale down, or to inhale down and exhale up.

Introduction

Breathing can become a graceful, integrated dance, and an abundant source of energy. – Denise Benitez 

Natural breathing is also called:

  • effortless breathing
  • free breathing
  • free flow breathing
  • belly breathing
  • diaphragmatic breathing
  • essential breathing
  • horizontal breathing
  • perfect breathing

Natural breathing is associated with an expansion and contraction of the mid-body as the diaphragm moves.

Natural breathing and simple breathing techniques have such positive effects as the following:

  • Activates the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Promotes good digestion
  • Supports posture
  • Promotes health of the back and the pelvic floor
  • Supports the lymphatic system
  • Balances acidity
  • Lowers inflammation
  • Helps to manage stress
  • Helps to relieve pain

Characteristics

The Body Expands Out & Then Contracts

Dr. Belisa Vranich describes a natural breath as having these characteristics:

  • The mid-body expands in all directions. It feels as if you are moving out and then contracting.
  • The inhale feels like “moving out,” an expansion of the body horizontally.
  • The exhale feels “as if I get thinner. No up and down at all.”
  • Vranich calls natural breathing “horizontal breathing,” describing it as an expansion and contraction of the mid-body as opposed to a lengthening upward and coming back down (which she calls “vertical breathing.”)

If It’s Not Active, Why Must it Be Taught?

Expert Jillian Pransky reminds us that natural breathing is “simply a process that we allow to happen,” and is in itself effortless.

Breathing is Not an Activity We Need to Accomplish

When the breath is free to be its natural depth and length, it helps send messages to the brain that you’re calm and that elicits or furthers the parasympathetic response to rest and digest. Breathing is not an “activity” we need to accomplish… It is simply a process that we allow to happen. You don’t actually have to make an effort to breathe. In fact, you have to take away effort. To inhale, you let the breath come to you. To exhale, you simply get out of its way. – Jillian Pransky

So if natural breathing is effortless, why, then, does it need to be taught? The reason is because of the prevalence of stress and restricted breathing patterns. As a result, most students will benefit by becoming aware of the characteristics of natural breathing and ways that their breath may be inhibited, as well as plenty of practice in relaxing the nervous system and feeling the effects of free breathing.

Following are some hallmarks of natural breathing:

  1. Breathing through the nose
  2. Belly swelling with the in-breath
  3. Ribs and torso moving with the breath
  4. Breathing is effortless

Breathe Through the Nose

  • Unless one has a respiratory illness, deviated septum or other reason, the yogic practice is to breathe through the nose rather than mouth.
  • Sinuses and nostrils filter, warm and moisturize air going into the lungs.
  • Nose breathing creates more resistance than mouth breathing, providing the lungs with an appropriate time for oxygen extraction and enabling a balanced oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange.
  • There are times, however, when breathing through the mouth is beneficial. Breath moves more quickly to the lungs and with greater ease and quantity through the mouth.

Allow Belly to Swell with In-breath

  • Upon inhale, the diaphragm moves down, pressing on the abdominal cavity, causing the belly to swell.
  • Holding any muscles in chronic contraction—including abdominal muscles—weakens them. To function properly, muscles must relax between contractions. While it’s true that a strong abdomen supports the back, chronically contracted abdominal muscles will increase tension and stiffness and ultimately weaken. (An example for students is how a bicep curl involves contraction and release. If we hold a dumbbell in an endless curl, the bicep will weaken.)
  • This is a very important teaching for students who—for a variety of cultural and personal reasons—have tightness or tension in their belly. With new students and those under stress, this teaching is fundamental and critical. However, this should not be confused with practices for more advanced yogis. The practice of keeping a slight tone in the belly between the navel and pubic bone is a practice that has many benefits. With growing awareness, students may learn to keep low belly tone while allowing the upper belly to expand, thereby still allowing the diaphragm to move through its full range. 
  • Allow the Ribs and Torso to Move
  • Allow the height, width and depth of the whole torso to move out and move in with the breath. Envision not just the front ribs but the whole 360° rib cage.
  • While beginners are unlikely to expand the rib cage fully, asana practice (along with awareness and breathing practices) can help to develop this mobility.
  • Feel the breath in the low belly, upper chest and back body.
  • Keep the throat soft.

Erich Schiffmann’s Instructions

The inhalation starts with the gentle swelling forward of the abdomen and then moves upward to expand the rib cage fully. The breastbone rises and swells forward as the shoulder blades slide down your back. These actions increase the distance between the top of the thighs and the bottom of the ribs—the area of your waist— and it is this increased space that gives the diaphragm freedom to move. As you exhale, allow the ribs to relax and come back to center without losing the spinal length you achieved with the inhalation, and then gently pull the abdomen inward. Breathe like this in all the poses throughout the practice. – Erich Schiffman

Allow the Breath to be Effortless

  • Rather than pulling the breath inside with outer muscles of the body, let yourself be breathed.
  • Let the breath expand in all directions, radiating outward.
  • Let the breath feel calm and smooth.
  • For those students (and teachers) who enter into deep states of concentration, natural pauses in the breath and a softer breath may occur naturally.

Deep Breathing isn’t Necessary

Provided your concentration is genuine, do not encourage yourself to breathe deeply during yoga asana practice. Only if you are exhibiting holding your breath should you be encouraged to breathe fully. – Mukunda Stiles

A Quiet, Relaxed Breath

The yogis… counseled us to breathe LESS—to restrain the breath and make it more subtle. A quiet relaxed mind follows a quiet relaxed breath. – Robin Rothenberg 

Promoting Conditions for an Effortless Breath

Our teachings on Pranayama & The Breath take you through the material in a methodical, step-by-step manner. Here at the beginning, we are focused simply on the free-flowing breath and identifying anything that inhibits it. (Next, we move into basic breath practices followed by “yogic breathing” and finally many pranayama techniques.)

Here we are focused on releasing constrictions and simply letting the breath flow. Any sort of instructing around the breath will naturally lead to increased awareness of the breath, which is a technique in itself (that we cover in the next section). As such, “teaching” natural breathing is something of an oxymoron. Therefore, the techniques noted here aren’t actually breathing techniques per se and yet are some of the keys to the power of yoga to support natural breathing.

Here are some ways to encourage the characteristics of an effortless breath:

  1. Relaxation
  2. Gentle Stretching & Moving with the Breath
  3. Hand on Belly & Heart
  4. Visualizations

Relaxation

  • Of course, relaxation is a key part of setting the stage for a natural breath. We mention it here simply to remind you that immediately upon start of class, students may be experiencing stress and constricted breathing. 
  • Since it will take some time for their nervous system to shift and their breathing to change, you may wish to be conscious of what you are teaching and encouraging early in class vs. later. For example, if students are encouraged to notice their breath at the start of class, they may find signs of stress. That is good information gleaned from awareness. But if at this point they hear teaching that is focused on the characteristics of a natural breath, for instance, they may feel a need to try and force a change to “improve” their breathing. Such forcing can simply exacerbate the stress response.
  • So, whether early in class or any other time, you may wish to periodically remind students to avoid strain and self-judgment when working with the breath.

Gentle Stretching & Moving with the Breath

  • Held tension in the torso, shoulders and neck will restrict action of the breathing muscles. Releasing such tension can release the natural breath.
  • In addition to the actual release of tension, the simple practice of moving with the breath can encourage natural breathing. From any position, including seated or lying on the back, coordinate a movement with the breath, letting the breath lead. For instance, from a seat, sweep the arms up overhead with the inhalation and release with the exhalation.

Hand on Belly & Heart

This may be practiced while in a restorative position, from the back, from seated or while standing. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart. Simply feel the belly and chest expanding and softening with the breath. Here are some verbal cues for consideration:

Verbal Cues

Notice the natural movement of breath under your hands. Relax your face, neck, and shoulders. As you inhale, feel the breath expand the lower belly, upper belly, rib cage, and chest. Feel each area expand gently, like a wave that starts in the lower belly and crests at your heart… Have the feeling that you are receiving each breath and welcoming it with an open heart. Keep a soft smile on your face. – Kelly McGonigal

* * *

Practice feeling your hand receiving your breath. Rather than focusing on “doing” the breathing, place your attention on feeling the breath coming and going under your hand. As you inhale, feel your belly and chest expand into your hand. Mentally imagine welcoming the breath with your hand. – Jillian Pransky 

* * *

Remember you aren’t really filling up—you are filling out. At the top of your [in-] breath… relax your shoulders and let the air feel as if it’s settling into your body. Then soften your pelvis, relax your glutes and thighs, and notice the feeling of being more grounded. – Dr. Belisa Vranich

Visualizations

  • Jillian Pransky offers this wonderful imagery: “Imagine you could breathe through your skin — feel where your skin meets the air. Rather than focusing on your breath moving through your nostrils, image that your skin is porous, or gill-like, and that your breath flows in and out through your skin, equally everywhere.”
  • Denise Benitez shares: “Imagine that your ribs are a barrel and you are looking into the barrel from the top down. Are your front lower ribs thrusting forward? Guide your front low ribs to relax down toward your belly and you may feel your breath move into the fullness of your back body. Then let the whole barrel of your ribs expand out from the center as you breathe. You might place your hands around your side ribs to feel the three-dimensional nature of your breath.”
  • Kelly McGonigal teaches: “Once you connect to the feeling of the breath, close your eyes. Feel your heart center right underneath your hands. Visualize one of the following in your heart center: your physical heart, resting between your lungs; a sun glowing brightly, or a sphere of light in your favorite color. Imagine it expanding as you inhale and contracting as you exhale. Connect to the visual image… as well as the feeling of it expanding and contracting.”

Belly Breathing, Three-Part Breath / Dirga Pranayama

Here we move from purely effortless breathing to a focus on the elements of natural breathing, particularly expansion of the belly and torso. This practice can be done lying on the back or in a sitting position. When lying down, you may wish to support the back of the torso with a length-wise bolster and a blanket or towel under the head.

Belly breathing is the introductory breath that gets you to breathe from the lower part of your body. – Dr. Belisa Vranich

This first set of instructions is called Belly Breathing. It can be the initial part of the Three-Part Breath or a full practice in itself.

  1. Let the body be relaxed.
  2. Place palm on belly. Spread fingers to increase ability to feel sensation.
  3. Inhale, feeling the hand rise.
  4. Exhale, feel the hand fall.
  5. Continue.

Let the Breath Fill You

It is not necessary to actively push your belly out. Let the breath fill you, causing your belly to rise naturally, like a balloon filling with air. Then let your belly come down naturally as you breathe out. Repeat this slowly several time. All breathing should be slow and gentle without any straining. Take these deep belly breaths in and out several time as you relax the muscles of your face and let your whole body relax. – Drs. Richard P. Brown & Patricia L. Gerbarg

The instructions above are the most common. In a variation for those who may benefit, however, Dr. Vranich instructs to initially exaggerate expansion of the belly. This it to help teach the sensation of using the diaphragm. And then “much later” the student will learn to expand the bottom of the ribs “without pretending you’re Santa Claus.”

Dirga Pranayama / Three-Part Breath

From Belly Breathing, the practice can focus on feeling the breath also in the lower ribs and upper chest. This next set of instructions is often called a Three-Part Breath (referring to the abdomen, diaphragm and chest). It may also be called Dirga / Deerga Swasam or Dirga Pranayama.

  1. Keep one palm on the belly and place the other hand on upper chest.
  2. Inhale, feeling belly rise. Then feel the rib cage expand. And then feel the collarbones rise.
  3. Exhale, release air from the upper chest (feeling heart center release down), then the rib cage, and finally the belly.
  4. Continue. Inhale to feel the expansion of the three parts. Exhale to release and notice the three parts contracting.

Inhale Up or Inhale Down?

Inhale Up

One visualization technique is movement in the direction noted in the 3-part breath above:

  • Inhale (up): feel belly expand, then the ribs expand and finally the chest
  • Exhale (down): feel release of chest, then ribs and finally belly

Inhale Down

Another visualization (taught by Mukunda Stiles in Yoga Therapy 2000 p 50) is movement in the opposite direction:

  • Inhale (down): allow the chest to expand, then ribs and finally the lower abdomen
  • Exhale (up): draw in abdomen and feel the breath going up and out

Which to Choose?

  • We often see the Inhale Up approach and this is often effective with beginners, due to the focus on the belly.
  • The author of this lesson, in her own practice, prefers Inhale Down.
  • Olga Kabel explains below some reasons to choose each.

Oxygen is not liquid, it’s gas; therefore, you cannot fill a container (lungs) from the bottom up, like you would with liquid… When we decide to change the natural pattern consciously, we might CHOOSE to expand the belly first and then expand the chest or we might CHOOSE to expand the chest first and then expand the belly. Both are voluntary actions done for a number of reasons:

Inhale – Expand the belly first then the chest

  • To emphasize the movement of the diaphragm
  • To try to overcome “reverse breathing” pattern
  • To produce a grounding effect on the system

Inhale – Expand the chest first then the belly

  • To lengthen the spine and improve posture
  • To gradually deepen the breath
  • To have a more uplifting effect on the system

– Olga Kabel

Practicing From Crocodile Pose

Using Crocodile Pose

When you are lying prone on your stomach, with arms folded at about a 45 degree angle above your shoulders, your body will naturally begin to breathe diaphragmatically. Use the crocodile pose to counteract the normal abdominal tension that arises whenever you are nervous. It will automatically get you started toward a more natural breathing style. Even advanced students find tension in the abdomen by the end of the day. The crocodile pose offers a chance to unblock the breath and release pent-up tension. – Rolf Sovik

As with the Three-Part Breath, bring attention to feeling the breath move through the body:

  • Abdomen – Feel how the abdomen presses against the floor with the inhale and recedes with the exhale. Relax the belly.
  • Ribcage – Become aware of the low ribs expanding laterally with the inhale and contracting with the exhale. The ribcage expands as the diaphragm contracts, and the ribs return inward as the diaphragm relaxes.
  • Low Back – Notice the back rise with the inhale, falling with exhale. Soften your back muscles.