Lesson 12: The Science of Breath

UnknownLesson 12: The Science of Breath

1. Anatomy and Kinesiology of Breathing.

Breathing is the most fundamental movement of energy in the body as it unites us to the world around us continuously and intimately. Our words spiritual and spirit come from the Latin ‘spiritus’ meaning breath, giving us insight into the layers of importance embedded in this rhythmic flow of inhalation and exhalation. Life begins with our first breath and ends with our last, and every breath is spiritually important.

In the first section, we began our observation of our breathing, and this will continue to be our primary practice. Just watching and feeling. But now we can add some specific directions to help focus our attention what is happening at the structural level. Returning to our supported savasana, Picture-42allow the spine to relax as fully as possible and begin to notice what parts of the body actually move with the breathing. Most people will feel the belly or abdomen moving up and down, especially as the relaxation deepens.

imagesWith ‘abdominal breathing, the diaphragm pushes down toward the abdomen on inhalation, causing it to rise up. On the exhalation, the abdomen drops and the diaphragm returns back up in the chest as the air is expelled. For those who carry a lot of anxiety or tension, this is a powerful way to relax the diaphragm and calm the mind. Can you now feel the diaphragm? It is easy to feel the abdomen, as you can see it move. The diaphragm is hidden from view, and often from perception. Visualize the picture of the diaphragm above. See its rounded, dome like shape as it fills the lower rib cage. Imagine the muscle fibers lengthening. In the second image, we see the diaphragm from below. The white tendinous fibers in the center are attachments for the muscle fibers, which also attach to the surrounding ribs.

How do the muscle fibers of the diaphragm act?  We can look at the biceps muscle for some clues. UnknownIn a push up, the hand and lower arm are the stabilizing end, and the contracting biceps pulls the upper arm toward the forearm. Unknown-1In a curl, the opposite action occurs. The upper arm is the stable end and the forearm is pulled toward the upper arm. Muscles have no inherent preference in direction of pull. It just depends on which end is the stabilizer and which is the mover.

The same principle is seen in the diaphragm, a large muscle, with one end attaching to the ribs and the other end to its own central tendon, (which makes the diaphragm unique). In the diaphragm, most people (unconsciously) stabilize the ribs and the muscle fibers pull the tendon down on contraction, which in breathing is inhalation. In exhalation, the fibers relax and the tendon rises back up. The freeing up of this action is called abdominal breathing, as mentioned above. The distance moved by the diaphragm is called the ‘excursion’ and averages 3 – 5 centimeters. A well trained, healthy diaphragm can move as much as 7 – 8 cms.

Unknown-2Another possibility, explored in yogic breathing, involves stabilizing the tendon and using the muscle fibers to lift the ribs. On inhalation, when the muscles contract, they pull the ribs up, and because of the way the ribs move on the spine, the ribs also flare out. On the exhalation, they reverse, dropping and coming back in. Same fibers working, just pulling in the opposite direction. In order to have this work, the ribs have to be free to move, and this is another area where yoga practice can help.

There is a physiological impulse inhale. When the oxygen/carbon dioxide levels reach a Unknownlimit, a signalis sent along the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm telling it to contract. The relaxation of the contraction creates the exhalation. Because the average person does not exhale completely, over time, the fibers of the muscles relax less and less, growing tighter, decreasing the movement available to the diaphragm. This will be seen as a slow collapse of the chest and a bulging of the abdomen, having nothing to do with weight gain. That is another layer. This is strictly an energetic shift based on poor breathing patterns. Healthy exhalation helps to stretch the diaphragm, and the abdominal muscles are a big help here.

imagesThe abs that most interest us are the transversus abdomini, the deepest of the three layers, the others being the rectus abdomeni and the internal and external obliques. The transversus runs at right angles to the spine and knits together at the median line, the linea alba, (white lineimages-1) which runs right up the center. We will look at this from a radically different perspective when we take up Chinese medicine in a later section, but for now know that the transversus works in synchrony with the multifidus muscles deep in the posterior spine, to help maintain an integrated core support. (see Tonic Function’ section).

When the transversus is strong, it supports the core without shortening it and provides a powerful rebound to deepen the exhalation. It thus acts as a images-2counterbalance to the contracting diaphragm. In the practice of uddiyana bandha, the whole abdominal wall is drawn in and lifted to maximize the stretch of the diaphragm and the expulsion of air from the lungs. The multifidi also have to participate to release the spine, so a full uddiyana may be difficult with spinal knots. Mild practice tones the abdominal wall without strain.

2. Circulation of the Prana/Chi

The hidden breath is the circulation of the energies of the breath throughout the body and the respiration at the cellular level.

(to be continued…)

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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8


Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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