“Now take a deep inhale:” the infamous words of many yoga teachers, but what exactly does that mean? Are all deep inhales the same? Are they fast or slow? Are they deep in the torso or high in the chest? Are you taking the biggest breath you can? Or a significant amount of air in a short time? There are so many moving parts when performing any skill; it should be broken down into pieces, and that takes repetition, time, patience, attention, and focus. When we tell someone to take a deep breath, it is like telling them to deadlift a heavy barbell off the ground and giving no other instructions.
In this article, I would like to create a more detailed map to the different parts that make up a full breath; I want to take you on a journey through the various layers (volumes) of the breath. I will give you three different practices, each describing a separate volume. It’s like creating a drop-down menu of more areas you can explore to expand the capacity of your breath and, as a result, your nervous system. When you can break down a larger complex movement or internal action, it will affect the process as a whole. When working with the breath, the changes and progressions can be subtle, but with the right questions coupled with a mindset of exploration, the feeling and definition of a "deep breath" will change over time. As you accumulate experiences, the capacity of your nervous system has no choice but to expand.
Before I introduce you to the pieces of a full breath, I would like to remind you of the principle of spectrums. (I love applying principles and spectrums!) It is a balance between the two polarities (fast to slow, big to small, intense to subtle, etc.) that allows one to achieve tremendous progress in all directions. If we stay on one end for too long, there will be a ceiling on growth. It is the ability to expand in both directions that allow our spectrum of experience to broaden. We are always testing the limits of our physical strength, the capacity of external actions. But what about the current boundaries of our internal experience? The inner experience is the other end of the spectrum. Let's begin to dive deeper to feel our internal capacities and get to know ourselves a little better.
The 'deep inhale' can be broken down into layers or volumes of the breath. There is the tidal volume, exhaled volume, inhaled volume, and residual volume (which is always there and keeps your lungs from sticking together when you fully exhale). Each volume has many different areas to explore with many different exercises. You can work several aspects, such as length of breath, speed of breath (rate of force development), or different levels of tension, to name a few. I will be introducing you to the basic exercises I show my clients when they first begin a Daily Coding practice. Please keep in mind that a breath practice or the path to a deeper breath is a beautiful journey and is different for each person, so do not compare your capacity or ability to others’- only to your own.
The most important tool when beginning a breath (and movement) practice is the imagination. Where are your thoughts focused? How does it feel? When you first try a pattern, it may feel weird- that is normal. If you continue to have thoughts that are getting you down for not being able to do something, it will hinder your progress. Stay positive. If you have never paid attention to a specific pattern before, of course it is going to feel weird, but when you can begin to imagine what it would look like and feel like, the breath and body will soon adapt to this image. If you continue envisioning or thinking that it is wrong, the pattern will not change, and you will just get frustrated. So be patient! And use the gift of imagination to envision progress.
Let's start with the most subtle layer, the Tidal Volume. At this very moment, you are using your tidal volume to breathe. The tidal volume should consist of about 4-6L of air per minute. When an individual has a large tidal volume or over breathes, it can result in ailments such as anxiety, panic attacks, obesity, sleep apnea, and hypertension, to name a few. The Buteyko Breathing method has used an individual's current tidal volume and CO2 tolerance as an indicator of health and oxygenation of the tissues and organs for the past 30 years, curing the ailments resulting from over breathing. The focus is on breathing less and reducing the number of breaths taken in a minute, and focusing on holding the breath at the bottom of the exhale. By breathing less you will shift the body to a calm (parasympathetic) state, so that you may explore with less tension, giving the body more room for expansion.
When a teacher asks you to “watch your breath,” you are observing the tidal volume. This is potent for healing and fine-tuning focus, and it can also be challenging to observe and not control. Think for a moment about other areas of your life to which this principle of control and observation might be beneficial. Knowing when to apply either is a skill that takes practice. When we apply a principle to one area of life, it will usually cascade into other areas as well.
In this practice, you will make an effort to breathe less, and learn to stay calm even with the urge to breathe more. This will take time to adapt. Be patient, if it is challenging keep practicing. When the practice becomes comfortable, you will experience a sense of calm and warmth throughout the body. Every time you practice with an intention, it is a mark on the spectrum of experience, over time you will begin to notice the pattern changing and observe progress.
Here is an example of a tidal volume exploration practice.
The next point of exploration is the exhaled volume. With the exhaled volume you do not even need to take an inhale. The exhale is active, and the inhale is passive. It is the volume we use when we cough or sneeze, to expel air from the lungs. When working with the exhale volume the abs/core engage to remove air from the lungs (think laughing so hard your abs hurt). As you release the contraction, the air will flow in without much effort. You can train the exhale in many different ways. For this article, we will focus on creating a long and smooth exhale, carving a tool for calming the nervous system.
There are many benefits to having a smooth and long exhale. The second that we begin to exhale our heart rate decreases and over time the blood pressure decreases, improving heart rate variability (HRV). When we exhale, the body enters a parasympathetic state (rest and digest), putting the brakes on the sympathetic system (fight or flight). When we acknowledge this space, it will allow us to create a more natural, soft, quiet and efficient inhale, relax and release tension from the organs, strengthen the core, reduces pain, and will help to remove tension and toxins from the body.
In the next practice, you will be learning to lengthen the exhale by using a humming breath. Learning to control the amount of air that leaves the lungs and creating space for the inhale. As you practice remember first to notice and do not judge what you feel, each repetition may feel different. Be patient and have fun!
Here is a breathing exercise that will help you explore the exhale volume
The final exercise to complete a full breath is the exploration of the inhaled volume where the inhale is active (without tension), and the exhale is passive. A refined inhale will assist in releasing tension from the neck and back, strengthening the intercostals (muscles between ribs) and the diaphragm. In my experience, this tends to be the volume people use the most, but instead of allowing the ribs to expand, most people breath upwards, using their neck and shoulders. The inhale volume is used the most during exercise or times of stress, and if these muscles are tight, then our efforts in a sympathetic state will be much more challenging than they need to be. The benefits of a freer inhale include, reduced pain and tension in the neck and shoulders, decreased anxiety or breathlessness, and releases tension in the thoracic spine (mid-back), and an increased physical capacity. It is essential to spend time re-learning how to inhale without tension and without using the neck and shoulders, this will create a better and more natural tidal volume.
When we inhale the heart rate will increase, and the sympathetic system will be activated. This can be a positive experience. Remember the sympathetic state is neutral, emotions such as fear, excitement, anger, joy, are all held under the category of sympathetic emotions. If a sympathetic emotion arises in practice, stay calm, observe and continue with the pattern or take a few natural breaths to relax, remember you are in control.
Here is a practice to create a smooth and relaxing inhale.
As we close out the first of many maps, many journeys through the aspects of the breath, remember, it is not about rushing to the next exercise as soon as it is easy. When it becomes easy you have carved out the tool, it is about repetition over time, not progressing to the next exercise. The more we practice a pattern, the more mileage we have, creating a broader spectrum of experience, and with this, you can notice the subtle changes each time you practice.
Think of the sum of this article as just one map to exploring your breathing capacity. Sit down with intention and practice, observe your current ability, image what it will look and feel like when it changes, no expectations, no judgments. I promise you won't regret it. :)