#1 The Breath
Since yoga is multidimensional- in that it has spiritual, physical and psychological components, it is often thought that the importance of breath is mainly to focus ones inner awareness and create calmness during a variety of challenging postures. This is true, however, the breath is also crucial for maintaining core strength for proper execution of the poses and is especially important during transitions. You’ll also notice that your instructors encourage diaphragmatic breathing, where the lower ribs expand laterally and there is little upward movement of the rib cage. The diaphragm is a muscular and tendinous sheath that closes the opening between the thorax and the abdomen. It is the primary muscle of respiration and has attachments to surrounding musculature, ribs, sternum, and most important to the purpose of this discussion, the first three lumbar vertebra.
Diaphragmatic breathing allows the diaphragm to perform its respiratory function while simultaneously providing stabilization support for the spine via increased intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). Dysfunctional chest breathing is shallow and mainly expands the top part of the lungs. Posture is improved when the lumbar spine is properly supported by sufficient IAP and no accessory muscles (neck, chest and back) are being recruited as in dysfunctional breathing. Taking all this into consideration, the key to core stabilization is to maximize the diaphragm’s efficiency in performing breathing activity and postural tasks at the same time. Kolar et al (2009) showed that the diaphragm pushes further down into the abdominal cavity during a postural task than it does during restful/quiet breathing. When the demands of postural tasks increase, the diaphragms expiratory position is lower than during restful breathing. That is, the diaphragm can be pushed down voluntarily to increase the IAP, and therefore to provide stabilization for the lumbar spine. The goal in maintaining core stabilization is to maintain the increased IAP, while going through normal breathing cycles. Overall, this is achieved by synchronized activity between the diaphragm, pelvic floor and entire abdominal wall.
On a more chiropractic level, dysfunctional breathing patterns and abnormal position of the diaphragm itself, have both been linked to individuals with chronic back pain. Obviously, changing an anatomic abnormality is another matter in itself, however, helping those who simply lack the proper control and awareness to promote this type of breathing is a simpler task. For those who have been identified as having faulty breathing patterns, it is recommended to master diaphragmatic breathing at rest rather than trying to master it right off the bat during a strenuous task. Once you have done this, the yoga studio is a great place to take it to the next level. Yoga is perhaps the type of exercise where the breath is most heavily emphasized and when focus is lost, you have an instructor to bring your attention back to it as you transition from one posture to another. If you can master the breath during your yoga practice, the increased stability will follow you into other physically demanding areas of your life, thus preventing injury. For those who currently suffer from chronic back pain, correcting any faulty breathing patterns is a step in the right direction in relieving your pain through optimal function.
Here is a link for diaphragmatic breathing instructions directed towards the yogi, but useful for anyone interested what has been discussed above.
Kolar P, Neuwirth J, Sanda J, Suchanek V, Svata Z, Volejnik J, Pivec M. (2009) Analysis of diaphragm movement during tidal breathing and its during activation while breath holding using MRI synchronized with Spirometry. Physiol Res, 58:383-92
Kolar, P., Sulc, J., Kyncl, M., Cakrt, O., Andel, R., Kumagai, K., Kobesova, A. (2012) Postural function of the diaphragm in persons with and without chronic low back pain. JOSPT, 42(4):352-62.
Richardson C, Hodges P, Hides J. (2004)Therapeutic exercise for lumbopelvic stabilization. New York Churchill Livingstone.