Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Balance and Twists

We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now,” “Breath to Support Movement,” and “Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice.” While we aren’t always moving our bodies in yoga, we are always moving our breath. It’s in a constant flow. In this sense, all yoga classes are flow yoga classes—there is always movement of the breath, and therefore always movement in the body.

Don't hold a balance pose without breathing!
Don’t hold a balance pose without breathing!

Breath and Balance

When you’re holding a balance pose, it can be quite tempting to hold your breath. When you’re on the verge of finding balance, the breath can feel disruptive. But not breathing isn’t a long-term solution! When you’re in a balance pose:

  • Keep your breath flowing
  • Establish a steady rhythm of breath—counting out a rhythm, in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4 can help
  • Count your breaths, too: take 5 or more in a balance pose, and build this over time
  • Notice if you are tempted to hold your breath

Breath and Seated Twists

In twists, full inhalations will slide you marginally out of the pose, and exhalations will create space for you to deepen. When you’re in a seated twist:

  • Use inhalations to reestablish height up your spine
  • Use exhalations to twist deeper naturally—don’t force

Breath and Reclining Twists

Next time you’re neck deep in a pool or bathtub, notice how your full inhalations buoy you out of the water, while exhalations sink you deeper. The same experience applies when you’re on your back in a twist:

  • Feel the inhalations unwinding you slightly
  • Use the exhalations to settle even deeper to the floor

Next time, we’ll look at how the breath interacts with holding backbends and forward bends.

—Sage

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 1

As you age, maintaining healthy feet is important: pain-free feet mean a lifetime of moving, dancing, and hiking. Healthy feet play a role in good balance, too, and having good balance makes it more likely that you’ll avoid a fall.

My dad does not have great feet. And because a lot of common foot issues—like low arches and bunions—are hereditary, I don’t have great feet either. Even if you won the genetic lottery, your feet will probably get wider, flatter, and a little stiffer with age and time. But here’s the good news: yoga can help. In the next few posts, I’ll show you how yoga poses keep your feet healthy and what you can add to your yoga practice to make your feet stronger.

 

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Lift your toes, then try to lower them independently. It’s more challenging than you think.

In the meantime, try this little exercise a couple times a day: Stand up and plant your bare feet firmly on a hard floor or yoga mat. Lift all your toes off the ground. Look down at your feet. Take a breath in, and as you exhale, slowly lower your pinky toes, then ring toes, middle toes, second toes, and finally your big toes. Try to go slowly and lower each toe independently of the other toes on your feet. Prepare to be humbled, though, as you may find this simple exploration is not quite so easy.

—Alexandra

 

Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice

IMG_1058We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now” and “Breath to Support Movement.” You may be most familiar with watching your breath in your yoga practice, especially as many teachers cue your inhalations and exhalations. Here’s the thinking behind this cueing.

Prana

Generally, we use inhalations to help as we lift things. Consider the instructions, “Inhale, lift your arms,” “Inhale, grow tall,” “Inhale, rise up.”

Notice your next few breaths come in, and you’ll probably feel this lifting energy through your chest, and maybe in your belly. As your lungs inflate, your ribs expand outward and upward. Moving your arms up or lifting your torso up then naturally follows this rising energy—what we’d call prana.

Apana

Conversely, exhalations often help as we lower things: “Exhale, hands to your heart.” “Exhale, hinge at your hips.” “Exhale, lower to the mat.” On the other side of the breath, exhalations help you settle down and in. Watch your next few exhalations, and you’ll feel this movement through your chest and belly. It’s a release in your diaphragm that can be assisted by light contraction through your core muscles. This sensation of downward-moving energy is called apana.

On the Mat

Pay attention to the cues your teacher issues, and you’ll see this pattern at play. At home, experiment: try inhaling as you lift, and exhaling as you lower. Then try breaking the pattern and see how that feels. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and consciously testing them will help you stay present and engaged in the interplay between breath and body.

—Sage

Be a Desk Chair Yogi

This week I have been sitting a lot. Between writing and catching up on end-of-summer paperwork, I’ve logged more time in a chair than I usually do. Yesterday I ran in the morning and later I put down my mat for a lunchtime yoga practice. But today I didn’t have the luxury of extra time, and after a morning of sitting, my body was calling for yoga. Sound familiar? When you have an unusually full day and you’re trapped behind a desk, this 5-step simple sequence is the answer.

Step 1: Go for a 5 minute walk. If you’re home, go check your mail or wander into your backyard. If you’re in an office, take a lap around the building or mosey into the parking lot. Take these 5 minutes alone and with no electronic devices. While you move, bring your attention to your breath. Aim for steadier, deeper breaths, and allow yourself to get curious about your habitual breathing patterns.

Step 2: Seated side stretch. Come back to your desk chair. Sit tall in the middle of your chair. Allow your right arm to settle onto the armrest or relax into your lap. Reach your left arm overhead, and find a side stretch that feels ahhh to you. (Add more: look up toward your left hand and allow your neck to get a stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Seated twist. Wrap your right arm around the back of your chair. Sit tall, and look over your right shoulder, twisting from your core. Your left hand can hold onto the right side of the chair or the right-side armrest to help you twist deeper. Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 4: Seated forward fold. Take your knees and feet wider than hip width. Settle your hands onto your thighs and sit tall. Engage your core and lean forward, keeping a long spine. You don’t have to go far: a few inches may be all you need. If you have any bone density issues, skip this move altogether. (Add more: take your hands to the back of your chair, and you’ll feel an additional stretch in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold for 10 breaths.

Step 5: Seated extension. Slide to the front edge of your chair. Reach your hands to the back of your chair and hold on to the seat. Engage your core, and extend your sternum skyward. Draw your shoulder blades down. (Add more: lift your chin and find a front-of-the-neck stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths.

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From upper left clockwise: side stretch, twist, forward fold, and extension, all seated.

More yoga is better than less, but some yoga is definitely better than none. This took me just under 12 minutes, including my walk. It was the perfect midday reset for my body and mind. This is simple to do and simple to remember. The next time you’re stuck at your desk, be a desk chair yogi!

—Alexandra

Breath to Support Movement

In my last post, “The Right Breath for Now,” I posed a series of questions to help you observe how your breath coordinates with your movement, both during your workouts and in your yoga practice. This observation is a lifelong practice—once you get really curious about your breath, you need never be bored again! There’s always something interesting to watch, and the more you pay attention the more you’ll find fascinating subtleties in every breath.

This observation gives you baseline data about how your breath operates to support your activity. With this in hand, you’ve got a target to return toward when your breath gets out of rhythm. Keep watching!

Run2

Here are some ideas about how the breath can support you as you move in your workouts.

  • Use exhalations on exertion. Let your exhalations give you some extra oomph when you are pushing, lifting, or swinging. Exhalations help you engage through your core, especially your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. These help support your spine and pelvis so you can better send power against the ground or the weight, or send power through the racquet or the club.
  • If you get a side stitch, reset your breathing pattern by varying which foot hits the ground or strokes down when you start inhalation and exhalation. That is, change from right to left, or left to right. This repositions your diaphragm on impact and can alleviate the stitch.
  • Use your breath to gauge exertion. At an easy warmup and cooldown effort, nasal breathing should be comfortable; at harder efforts, it may not.
  • Listen to your body—literally. If your breath is loud or wheezy, ease up. Look for a regular rhythm that helps you feel controlled and steady.

—Sage