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  • Michelle Helstrip Dru Yoga Therapist

Voluntary Magic - using the breath to help us through these stressful times


The breath was the main focus of our teaching session today, for three reasons:

1. Increasing our breathing efficiency

2. Reducing our stress levels

3. Maintaining a healthy equilibrium

1. Increasing our breathing efficiency

On a physical level, we can train ourselves to more fully utilise our lung capacity via specific breathing exercises.

These exercises help to strengthen the diaphragm muscle, the umbrella-shaped muscle that contracts and flattens as we breathe in (inspiration/ the inhale), then relaxes and expands to push air out of the lungs as we breathe out (expiration/ the exhale).

If the diaphragm is not working properly, other muscles in the neck, back and chest start trying to do the necessary work, but are much less effective.

The American Lung Association states that breathing exercises, if practiced regularly, can help to rid the lungs of stale air, increase oxygen levels, and encourage the diaphragm to work efficiently.

Efficiency of breathing and utilising full lung capacity are both of increased benefit at this particular moment in our shared history, as in more serious cases Covid-19 can affect the lungs, creating wide-spread inflammation and making breathing difficult.

Researchers have not yet looked into the effects of breathing exercises on lung capacity in people with Covid-19, so there is currently no hard evidence to prove whether these exercises are a safe or effective way to manage symptoms.

However, the benefits of these breathing exercises, in relation to other conditions such as COPD, asthma and post-pneumonia (for clearing the lungs of mucus), is already widely recognised.

2. Reducing our stress levels

We can positively influence our mental health by using breath practices to calm the body, thereby calming the mind.

Our breath is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, but is unusual in that we can breathe involuntarily (we simply breathe, with no conscious effort) or we can breathe voluntarily i.e. alter our pattern of breathing to produce a certain effect.

For example, slow diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, effecting a physiological response in the parasympathetic nervous system. This physiological response includes decreased oxygen consumption, decreased heart rate and decreased blood pressure.

‘It is hypothesised that voluntary slow deep breathing functionally resets the autonomic nervous system’ (Varvogli et al ‘Stress Management Techniques’).

So, by breathing more slowly and with our focus on the abdominal area, we encourage our bodies to relax.

This sense of relaxation is useful if you are feeling over-stimulated or overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life.

Many people are reporting that they are currently finding it difficult to achieve good quality sleep. Adding an appropriate breathing practice into your bedtime routine helps to relax the body enough for it to slip into a more restful, sound sleep.

3. Maintaining a healthy equilibrium

Breathing practices can be used to bring us toward a state of meditation, one of the key tools of yoga for bringing the mind, body and spirit into alignment and to a sense of oneness, of equilibrium.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the ancient key yoga texts, Pranayama (which can be understood in the modern yoga context as ‘breath control’) is presented as a precursor to meditation.

There are a number of breath control techniques, or breathing practices, available to students of Yoga, dependant upon the desired end result.

If we consider that all yoga elements are designed to lead us to the still point of meditation, we can see that pranayama is an important travelling companion on our yogic journey.

Pranayama allows us to influence the physical and mental states of our bodies, stimulating or calming our body/mind in order to gradually come to that quiet place within.

Try practising the Diaphragmatic breath regularly, to reap these rewards. And, if you are not sure how to best practice this rewarding breath, join us for our next online Dru yoga session!

Sources & Further Information:

Healthline ‘Diaphragm Overview’ https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/diaphragm, American Lung Association breathing exercises https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/breathing-exercises; British Lung Foundation https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/pneumonia/recovery; Stress management Techniques https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/69e1/ce17641b1d6b3b8c1cb3079ad741f3c9cb82.pdf, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (v.2.29; 2.49. – 2.51; 2.52 – 2.53;

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