Breathing and bandhas
In the last two newsletters, I covered both mula bandha and uddiyana bandha from an anatomical point of view. I feel the need to finish off these two articles with one on the breath.
It seems to me that without breath, there are no bandhas. In fact, as the title says, breath comes from bandha. My logic works like this, if we’re going to try to control, as well as use energy in our body, then we have to bring that energy in. In yoga, there is one way that we bring energy in. That is through the breath.
My teacher John Scott directed me to my first personal and direct experience of the connection between breath and bandha. At the point when I met John, I had been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for about one and a half years. I was in the UK to teach anatomy workshops for the very first time and I had booked on to study Ashtanga yoga with John for two weeks.
Waking up to the breath
At the end of the first week, John said to me something like, “David, you’ve shown up with a full primary series, but no breath and no bandha.” Needless to say, I was crestfallen. At that point, I thought I understood what breath and bandha were. To be honest, I might have intellectually known what they were, but I hadn’t experienced them in the way that John was talking about.
John is not the type to make a comment like that without explaining what he’s talking about. Occasionally you find teachers who flippantly say that you can’t do this or that pose because you don’t have bandhas, but then they don’t show or explain what they mean. John sat down next to me and put my hand on his abdomen while he was breathing. I continued to hold it there while he did a few different types of asana. Whatever I had been doing, it wasn’t what John had done in that moment. I had one more week of practice with John and then I was headed home. When I returned home, I gave every ounce of my effort to holding my navel in the way John had.
I purposely did not focus on the asanas’ depth. I focused only on whether or not I could breathe correctly while holding my navel in, in the same way, I had witnessed John do it. Over the course of the following three months, practicing six days a week, I slowly started to understand. The breath led me to understand bandha. Slowly but surely, there was a lightness and ease to my practice that I hadn’t experienced before.
Breathing with the diaphragm
There is plenty of debate about what the “right” type of breathing is in yoga. The more classical yoga practices such as Sivananda use a belly breath. Those of us doing a more vigorous Ashtanga-type practice keep the belly in during breathing. Other methods don’t really pay attention to the breath at all. I must acknowledge that because I’m an Ashtanga practitioner, my experience and understanding is colored by that method. That’s not to say that the way it’s done in Ashtanga is the “right” way. I see it as a technique to elicit qualities in the practice.
Now, my job is to make this anatomical in some way, which I will do in short order. First, as a reminder from the last two articles, mula bandha refers to the root lock which is associated with the pelvic floor. Its purpose is to prevent the downward flow and escape of energy through the bottom of our torso. Uddiyana bandha is translated as “upward flying”. It is the energetic lock that is responsible for creating upward moving energy as well as the lightness we see in an advanced yogi’s practice.
In those last two articles, we associated mula bandha with the pubococcygeal muscles and uddiyana bandha with the psoas muscle.
The main muscle of respiration as many people know is the diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm is a muscle with a shape unlike any other in the body. I often refer to it as dome-shaped. Others refer to it like a parachute.
Anatomy of the diaphragm
As far as attachments of a muscle go, the diaphragm stands alone. Most muscles attach from one bone to another and then move those bones relative to one another. The diaphragm is a little different. The posterior part of the diaphragm attaches on the spine. It then circles around the bottom of the rib cage until it gets to the xiphoid process at the bottom of our breast-bone. The fibers of the muscle run up and down and attach at the top of the dome to what’s called the central tendon. When the muscle contracts it shortens those fibers and one end moves toward the other.
Different ways to breathe with the diaphragm
There are two ways that the diaphragm functions. Those functions relate to whether we breathe into our belly or into our chest. They are also the key to the relationship between how mula and uddiyana function anatomically and the physical effect they create in our torso.
The first way of breathing we’re going to talk about is the way that everyone believes is the biggest deepest breath, often referred to as a belly breath. In this kind of breath, it’s common for people to think that their diaphragm moves down between 3 and 6 inches and therefore forces the abdomen to push out almost the same. As much as it might feel like this, it isn’t happening. On our biggest belly breath, the top of the diaphragm is probably moving downward between 1.25 and 1.75 inches. (see references below.) There is variation based on height and weight.
This will seem obvious when I tell you that the heart is sitting on top of and is connected to the diaphragm via connective tissue. If the diaphragm moved down that far, what would happen to the heart? You don’t really think your heart moves down between 3 – 6 inches when you breathe, do you?
Breathing method one
Now, with this first way of breathing the diaphragm contracts, and as its surface moves down, it pulls on the connective tissue bags that surround the lungs. As a result of this, a negative pressure is created in the chest cavity and the lungs fill. It is the diaphragm moving, even just an inch that pushes the abdominal contents below and the abdomen out.
The second type of breathing is different and it changes the sequence of events that happen when you breathes. In the first type of breathing (take a couple with your abdomen moving out), the abdomen pushes out on the inhalation first and then toward the end of the breath the chest fills. In addition, at the very end of inhalation, you may also feel a slight pressure on your pelvic floor as it is pressed down by the abdominal contents.
Breathing method two
The second type of breathing causes the diaphragm to work in a completely different way. In order to make this happen, we have to do a couple of things. We have to change the tension in different areas of the abdominal container. By abdominal container, I mean the container created by the diaphragm on top, the pelvic floor on the bottom, and the abdominal muscles around the side and front.
Engaging the pelvic floor
There are two ways in which we change the tension in the container. The first one is to contract the pelvic floor muscles. The tightening of the pelvic floor means that when pressure comes down from the diaphragm contracting, that pressure won’t push those tissues downward, because the tension prevents it. This of course is the purpose of mula bandha, to prevent the downward movement of energy.
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Engaging the muscles behind the navel
The second way in which we change the tension in the container is to pull the navel in and hold it there during both inhalation and more easily during exhalation. If you also hold the abdomen in and take a breath, you will quickly notice that the breath goes into the chest right away. The diaphragm no longer has the ability to push down and the abdomen obviously can’t go out. The force gets re-directed upward into the chest. Isn’t this the purpose of uddiyana? That is, to direct the energy/breath/prana upward?
This represents the second way in which we can breathe. By holding the abdomen in, the diaphragm is forced to produce a different action. Instead of the top of the diaphragm moving downward as it did in the first type of breath, the top of the diaphragm remains still.
With the top of the diaphragm remaining still, it’s obviously not going to lower down. Instead, the fibers of the diaphragm pull the lowest ribs upward. Keep in mind that the ribs in our chest are not parallel to the floor. Instead they are angled down. As the diaphragm contracts in this way, the front of the ribs lifts upward once again making space in the chest cavity (just in a different way). With the space made, negative pressure is created and air rushes in.
This type of breathing stimulates their deeper and subtler aspects as energetic components for practice. This is not a critique or judgment about which way of breathing during yoga is correct. Both are correct depending on the method one practices. What I am saying is that the technique of physically creating mula and uddiyana during an asana practice changes the way in which our breathing happens, physically. That physical change is in line with the intention of mula and uddiyana. You can read more about the connection between breath and bandha on pages 158-161 of my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
Gerscovich, E. O. et al. 2001. Ultrasonographic evaluation of diaphragmatic motion. J Ultrasound Med 20:597–604.
Cohen E. et al. 1994. Excursion-volume relation of the right hemidiaphragm measured by ultrasonography and respiratory airflow measurements. Thorax. 29:885-889.
Thanks Brenda 😉