Want to to learn how to really embody your breath in order to take bigger, deeper breaths and rest more fully as a result? Read on.
“Inhale, raise your arms. Exhale, fold forward. Inhale, rise up to a half forward bend. Exhale step, or jump, back to Chataurunga.”
As a yoga student, I’m sure you recognize this phrase from just about every vinyasa class in which you’ve practiced. Ironically, the most frequent phrase I hear from students after teaching a vinyasa class is: “I love yoga, but I don’t get the breathing part.” That’s when I usually laugh and say, “Of course you get the breathing part! You’re alive!”
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All humans inhale and exhale 24/7, but rarely are we aware of the breath in the course of our daily lives. It is during a yoga practice that we have the opportunity to become more aware of our respiratory patterns. We get to look at the quality, pacing, fullness, and texture of our inhalations and exhalations; we get to pause and appreciate the breath’s profound ability to create vitality and well-being. As we become more mindful of our breathing, naturally the question arises: Why do we need to bring awareness to the breath when respiration happens automatically?
The response is three-fold. First, on a physical level, if we coordinate movement with breath, movement becomes more effective and efficient. Then, from a physiological perspective, the breath regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous responses (the autonomic nervous system). Finally, from a psychological viewpoint, this regulation can help us cultivate better stress management techniques. In other words, when we manage the quality of our breath, we have the ability to influence our relaxation responses.
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It is important to keep in mind that breath is three-dimensional. Our lungs expand and condense forward and back, side-to-side, and up and down. By preparing the muscles of the body to support these natural shape changes, your breath capacity will be greatly enhanced, movement will be more effective, and the reactions of the autonomic nervous system will sustain greater resiliency. Because most people have postural and muscular imbalances, the body needs to be primed through yoga postures to achieve maximum results from respiration.
The following sequence will prepare your body for optimal breathing and as a happy result, relaxation. By stretching and freeing up space in tight muscles, strengthening weak postural muscles, and toning the diaphragm—the major muscle of respiration—you will attain a deeper and more efficient breath.
This Sequence Will Help You Breathe and Relax
A Yoga Sequence to Relieve Back Pain After Prolonged Sitting
Yoga for Diabetes: 12 Poses and a Meditation to Mitigate Stress
Use this sequence to find refuge from the clutches of chronic illness.
Resting is hard for me. I would rather be on the go, overcoming hurdles or realizing my life vision. However, it’s difficult to achieve creative goals without rest, introspection, and relaxation. The same is true in diabetes care. If you have diabetes, like me, you’re constantly connected to your continuous glucose monitor, personal diabetes manager, or insulin pump. People with this condition are plugged into a monitor to stay alive, and blood glucose readings get mixed up with who we think we are and we lose our sense of self. Every arrow on the screen, every deviation up or down leaves a residue of subtle negative emotion in the landscape of the body and mind, making it impossible to relax, because every misstep can have potentially deadly consequences.
Any person facing modern technological advances suffers a great deal from similar mind spin; diabetes is just the microcosm of the macrocosm. The disease simply accentuates the detrimental distractions that people face without diabetes. Mental fluctuations are influenced by external and internal factors. For instance, a blood glucose reading of 400 mg/dL (very high!) can be a catalyst for thoughts that can spiral out of control because of past negative experiences—any number outside of normal range may cause you to remember the last time your glucose was too high and how awful you felt. Even more subtle than the thought is the impression left by the event. You may carry judgmental guilt, stew in the past, fret about what you should have done, worry about the long-term effects, or whatever the story may be. When the mind spins, we often react instead of respond. On a physiological level, the nervous system is in overdrive. A heightened state of arousal (being on guard) sends internal alarms into hyper-mode. Our brains tell our bodies that there’s an emergency, pumping stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and glycogen into the bloodstream. The unintentional effect is insulin resistance (resulting in increased blood sugar), making diabetes much harder to manage. The cumulative result of this vicious cycle is distress, anxiety, and depression.
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There is a saying in the diabetes community that we are greater than the sum of the highs and lows. What this means is that although you may have diabetes, you are not diabetes. This may make sense on a cognitive level; however, it cannot be fully understood and integrated into your life until it is realized directly through practice. The sage Patanjali writes about mind chatter in the Yoga Sutra as chitta vritti—fluctuations of consciousness. A goal of yoga is to nullify these fluctuations so that you can rest in your own self-essence, free of all conditions. Yoga intervention practices can stop the spinning cycle, calming the mind and promoting your natural ability to regenerate, heal, and process unwanted emotion. I have type 1 diabetes, and although, as a yoga therapist, I prescribe different exercises for different types of diabetes, the yoga therapy practice on the following pages will benefit anyone who is living with a chronic illness. It promotes an exciting mix of energies—some stimulating and some pacifying—to help you self regulate and balance out the highs and lows.
People with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that transports energy from food into the body’s cells. They need to take insulin to avoid complications from hyper-glycemia. Insulin can be administered with a pump or an injection pen.
Sequence – Mitigate Your Response to Stress
See also A 5-Minute Meditation to Release Anxiety
About our author
Teacher and Model Evan Soroka is a yoga therapist living with type I diabetes in Aspen, Colorado. She is the owner of Evan Soroka Yoga Therapy, founder of the Rise Above Diabetes Program, and a contributor to Yoga Journal and Yoga International. She received her extensive credentials from Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute. Evan continues to study under the guidance and mentorship of Yogarupa Rod Stryker. Learn more at evansoroka.com.
A Gentle Yoga Sequence to Target Your Nerves
Your yoga practice can be a therapeutic tool for pain management and prevention. Try this gentle sequence to target your nerves and protect their signaling powers.
With all of the new and emerging information on pain science, yoga students and teachers have the opportunity to apply modern research to their practices and help alleviate and prevent pain.
Preliminary research suggests that gentle movement of your nerves is vital to both managing pain and supporting the general health of your nervous system. The idea is that healthy nerves should be able to gently slide, elongate, and angulate within neural tissues (some nerves can move as much as ¾ inch) in order to adapt to different loads and minimize pressure that can worsen existing pain, alter sensation, or lead to new pain patterns. Sometimes, tone and tension around neural tissues can be a problem. These tissues are bloodthirsty and rely on an important pressure gradient around them to maintain adequate blood flow. So even small changes in tissue tension around a nerve can be enough to block nerve mobility and lead to compression that disrupts blood flow and nerve signaling back to the brain, contributing to pain.
See also Low Back Pain 101: 3 Sequences to Ease Your Pain
To help you keep your nerves adaptable and protected, try the asana technique on the following pages based on an understanding of neurodynamics (the study of nerve movement through its surrounding tissues) and nerve pathways. We have the ability to alternately put tension on different ends of the nerve to create a movement of the nerve through the tissues, often referred to as nerve gliding. As you floss the nerve, you potentially allow it to move more freely so that it can communicate more efficiently with your brain. For example, the sciatic nerve runs through the back of your leg, so in Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) if you bend your knee (raised leg) and flex your foot, you’ll put tension on one end of the nerve (by your foot) and slack the other end (by your knee). This action draws the sciatic nerve and its branches toward your foot. Then, as you extend your knee and point your toes, you’ll reverse the areas of tension and slack. This action draws the branches of the sciatic nerve toward your knee. When you put these movements together you can encourage the sciatic nerve to move back and forth through its tissues more effortlessly. You also may down-regulate local inflammatory responses, restore healthy blood flow to the hard-working nerve, and encourage more efficient communication between your brain and body. Optimal signaling is crucial if you want your immune and nervous systems to function at their best, which is another reason to add nerve gliding to your repertoire.
The key to nerve gliding is to move gently within an easy range of motion. Since your target is the pain-free movement of your nerves, not of your muscles and fascia, you want very little sensation or stretch. It’s a great reminder that even in the physical body there’s clearly more to what we do than just sensations or the feel-good endorphins associated with them. Another thing I love about this approach is that, in addition to being a safe way to work with pain, it’s very accessible since it’s about simple, gentle movements.
See also Reduce Pain and Discomfort with These Poses for the Pelvis
Sequence – Neurodynamic Movement
To begin, pick a nerve you want to focus on and find a range of motion that’s accessible, pain-free, and with very little (if any) stretching sensation. Do 5–10 repetitions of the pose or this sequence once or twice a day. If you’re using these moves more preventatively, try rotating a few of them into your regular practice a couple times a week, and remember that in group classes there’s more than just stretch and sensation affecting the tissues. Happy flossing!
Join Tiffany Cruikshank at Yoga Journal’s upcoming event in January at 1440 Multiversity. Learn more at yogajournal.com/thepractice.
About our author
Teacher Tiffany Cruikshank is the founder of Yoga Medicine, a community of teachers focused on fusing anatomy and Western medicine with traditional yoga. For more information, go to yogamedicine.com.
Model Jenna Nishimura is the general manager of Yoga Medicine and a teacher of gentle, yin, and restorative yoga in Denver, Colorado.
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