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Breathing as Spinal Massage

June, 2017

In the branch of Yoga called Pranayama (Prana = breath, life; Yama = discipline) there is a technique called Nadi Shodhan Pranayama. I learned this technique from my yoga mentors in Bombay and in an ashram in Rajnandagaon in Central India. It’s the best way I know to quiet my mind when I feel agitated. I have taught the technique to many students and patients over the years as a way to address obsessive thoughts, anxiety, and 'blah' feelings.


This Yogini is practicing Nadi Shodhan Pranayama, a style of meditative breathing

You place the tips of your middle and pointer finger of the right hand between your eyebrows and use your thumb and ring finger to open and close your nostrils. Now follow this pattern:

1.    Inhale through one nostril for four counts,

2.    Hold (with both ring finger and thumb closing the nostrils) for eight counts

3.    Exhale through the other nostril for eight counts.


Here you can see the hand position used for this breathing practice 

Now you try. Inhale left (4), hold (8), exhale right (8), inhale right (4), hold (8), exhale left (8). After a few rounds of this, the inhalations become quite dramatic (especially in a room full of people practicing during the cold season) and the exhales are harder to slow. I always remind my students that breathing is a priority (!) and that they should do whatever is necessary to get the breath they need. If you have a stuffy nose, for example, this might mean breathing through the mouth.


This is an alternate hand position used for Nadi Shodhan Pranayama

Since starting to work with primal posture, I have realized some new uses for Nadi Shodhan Pranayama. Most of us have shallow breath. With muscle tension in our backs and chests, typically brought on by poor posture, it is difficult for the lungs to fully expand. We end up breathing enough to not die - and that’s about it! Even after we learn to restructure ourselves and melt away unnecessary muscle tensions, this shallow breathing pattern often remains out of habit. Nadi Shodhan Pranayama helps change that. You breathe more deeply than usual doing this technique – and also after. It’s as though you have primed the pump.


Muscles all around the spine and rib cage are gently stretched and massaged through deep breathing, which can be therapeutic and relaxing for the entire system

You will discover that deep breathing alongside healthy structure induces the tissues around your torso to move constantly. You have now found your inner massage therapist and an important key to self-healing. Your back muscles get a gentle stretch, your discs rehydrate, and the circulation around your spinal tissues improves - simply by breathing more deeply. As you adopt this habit, you will breathe your way to a healthier life.

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Comments

Hi Esther,

Love it, love it LOVE IT!  Thank you so much for sharing this.  I've been wanting to add pranayama to my meditation and this is the best one I've tried.  I especially love the concept that correct breathing + correct posture automatically hydrates and stretches your spine.  I've thought quite a lot about this when correcting my posture and always I have the mental image of the carpenter with his chest proudly stuck out (in your book).  This is another dimension to add and I know it will be valuable.  Thanks.

Tara 

Hi again, Esther,

So, I've been thinking about this all day and have a question.  (Preamble.) In the meditation practice I have been doing, I was taught diaphragmatic breathing.  After reading your book, I began to experiment using the Inner Corset while sitting to meditate and so of course my breathing became more focused on the upper body.  Through some research on the subject I learned that breathing from the diaphragm activates the parasympathetic aspect of the central nervous system (rest and relaxation) while upper chest breathing activates the sympathetic (physical and mental activity) path. Understanding this helped me to keep awake on the meditation cushion.  I suppose many meditation teachers want students to relax and thus teaching belly breathing can aid with this goal but if you do much meditation, often the problem can be staying awake.  So when I began to practice the inner corset along with focusing on full lung breathing I found it much easier to stay awake on the cushion.  Eventually I decided to work on a full breath filling from the bottom to the top and then in the exhale, letting all the lung go  down at once (rather than reverse of the inhale). I don't know if this is correct.  Frankly, just breathing at all while my Inner Corset is activated is something of a chore (but gradually getting easier).  

And now the question...what are your thoughts about how to breathe during meditation?  What do you recommend? Should we try for a whole breath going all the way down to the diaphragm or just focus more on the upper body?

Thanks!

Tara

I believe this matter is complex and does not break neatly down into one kind of breathing being a parasympathetic nervous system stimulus and the other a sympathetic nervous system stimulus.  It's also relevant that many people don't make enough distinction between chest breathing and (what I call) neck breathing (involving the scalenes, and known to be a stress-related pattern of breathing).

Notes:

  • Staying awake in meditation is a good thing! 
  • I wonder if, in meditation, the intention is to direct the breath or observe the breath.
  • If it's just the belly moving, might it be a good project to tone the deep abdominal muscles, not while meditating, but during other activities?
  • If breathing with the inner corset is a chore, might it be a good project (including perhaps during meditation) to relax the intercostal mscles and the erector spinae muscles, so that you can breathe easily at all times?

Please keep us posted on your experiments!

Thank you, Esther!  All excellent thoughts.  I have been over-thinking things (precisely why I need to meditate).  xo

Training as a yoga teacher I learned various breathing techniques. Over the 20 years since, and especially as a Gokhale Method teacher, I went on to develop a more natural posture and breath, which enriches both day to day life and Pranayama too.

In my experience many people who learn yoga breathing techniques are, unfortunately, superimposing them on top of postural tensions and/or postural collapse, which is not usually addressed by their Pranayama teachers. The 'upright but relaxed' seated posture (as taught in the Gokhale Method Stacksitting) has transformed my Pranayama practice, allowing a degree of movement and flow in breathing that was unattainable before.

As someone with a long history of tucking and lower back stiffness, this increasing lengthening movement in the spine on the inhalation has been a revelation! My feeling is that the strength and elasticity of the diaphragm descending on the inhalation is integral to the mechanisms of the lower spine and health of the psoas. This differs from "belly breathing" in sitting which mainly pushes the abdomen outward due to poor muscle tone in that area and tightness in the back. Healthy breathing includes a strong and yet elastic diaphragm muscle and only works optimally if the abdominal wall (cue Inner Corset and rectus) is able to offer some resistance to expansion forward and direct the intra-abdominal pressure downward. Over recent years it seems in my body that this length, expansion and space downward mirrors the expansion upward in the upper chest, neck etc., and the whole torso and spine is involved - my 'inner massage therapist". I hope that is helpful?

 

Thank you!  Yes, very helpful!  My meditation training has been mainly Zen Buddhist and I was taught to let the lower belly relax totally (sort of like that fat jolly "Buddha" statue) but this never felt right for me (and perhaps I misunderstood the instructions).  I love your suggestion of having some resistance to forward expansion...makes perfect sense.  Thanks!

Tara

For how long, or how many repeats, should one do to get the most out of this specific yoga? I would like to begin my regular meditation with a period of Pranayama.

Thank you.

I usually do it till I feel very calm, which takes about 3-5 minutes. The counting of course takes your mind off anything that may have been preoccupying you, but you also feel a quieting physiological shift after a little while of doing it. 

Thank you.