Breath of fire strengthens your breathing muscles

Breath of fire is a yoga breathing technique that has many benefits, including strengthening the breathing muscles. This is timely, given that one of the early symptoms of COVID-19 may include shortness of breath, which after 5-10 days may turn into quite difficult breathing.

Even mild cases can last several weeks and require breathing exercises that physicians are prescribing. Pulmonary doctors in hospitals are working hard to figure out exactly what’s happening with the lungs and with oxygen intake when COVID turns serious, and whether (and how) the protocol for putting patients with difficulty breathing on ventilators (if even available) needs to be changed.

It makes sense to me, given that there’s no vaccine or immunity to this novel virus and they’re still figuring out how best to treat severe cases, to prepare for the worst, and strengthening breathing muscles is one way to do that.

My experience with breath of fire

I’ve written about breath of fire before, because it helped me reduce the discomfort of a hiatal hernia, which involves the opening in the diaphragm for the esophagus to pass through to the stomach.

I’d had occasional discomfort for a while. One day, after a group meditation in a biodynamics class, it suddenly came to my mind that this technique, which I’d learned in a yoga class years previously, could help.

I started practicing it, and it did help. It’s rare for me to feel any hiatal discomfort now after 2.5 years of regular practice.

The anatomy

The diaphragm Is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity (containing heart and lungs) and the abdominal cavity (containing liver, gallbladder, pancreas, stomach, spleen, kidneys, adrenals, bladder, small and large intestines, and reproductive organs).

The muscle attaches to the bottom of the rib cage (higher in front, lower in back).

When we do diaphragmatic breathing on the inhalation, the dome of the diaphragm flattens and our rib cages and bellies expand. When we exhale, the dome of the diaphragm moves up and our rib cages and bellies narrow.

Other breathing muscles that breath of fire activates include the external intercostal muscles between the ribs. The major accessory breathing muscles include those surrounding the rib cage: the pectorals, trapezius, the lats, the serratus muscles, the spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum.

Because breath of fire uses forceful exhalations, the abs are also involved: rectus abdominis, the transverse and oblique abdominals, and the internal intercostals.

Other benefits

Doing breath of fire can help us to not feel so helpless when so much is beyond our control in regard to the pandemic.

It energizes the mind, fights depression, and may help with controlling diabetes, asthma, blood pressure, and obesity.

It provides your body with more oxygen. (I just took a pulse oximeter reading before doing 3 minutes of breath of fire — 96 — and after — 98.)

It may increase mental clarity and motivation, being associated with the solar plexus or power chakra, right below the diaphragm.

It massages your abdominal organs. People pay good money for this!

Because movement helps our lymph flow, doing breath of fire especially activates abdominal lymph, increasing the elimination of toxins. It’s said that 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut in the form of gut-associated lymph tissue, so breath of fire strengthens immunity.

The yoga connection

In Sanskrit, breath of fire is called kapalabhati, which translates as “forehead or skull shining”. This refers to the facial radiance of people who practice this technique regularly.

You want some of that, right?

Keep in mind: as with all yoga, you are the ultimate teacher. Listen to your body. Let it tell you when to stop. Let it tell you the pace that is right for you. Be kind.

And if you haven’t done yoga before, I recommend getting started. Yoga with Adriene is a YouTube channel with lots of classes of various lengths, including classes for beginners, and nearly 7 million followers.

Please don’t overdo it. It’s strong medicine and should not be done if you have epilepsy, have had recent surgery, or are pregnant. Kundalini yogis require that women not do it during the first three days of their menstrual periods.

To avoid muscle soreness, start with 30 seconds. It’s much kinder to build strength gradually.

Also, don’t practice it right after eating a meal!

Here’s Adriene teaching breath of fire: https://youtu.be/jbtLH-3DfLc

And go! (Let me know if you have any questions, comments, or results to relate.)

Breathing and being breathed

I have been breathing since shortly after I was born, but I never really gave much thought to it until I started doing yoga a few decades ago, and there wasn’t much instruction. In fact, I was a mindless smoker for part of my younger, ignorant, addicted life.

Pranayama (breath work) is the 4th limb of yoga, right after asana (postures). A few of my yoga teachers have included pranayama techniques at the end of asana class. Awareness of where I feel my breath, feeling it down to my pubic bone, feeling it on the sides and back of my rib cage and in my lumbar area and between my shoulder blades, keeping my shoulders down, letting my diaphragm really expand downwards, moving the heart/lungs and liver/gallbladder/pancreas/stomach/spleen on either side of the diaphragm, increasing the movement of detoxifying lymph with each breath, being present with the energizing inhalation and the relaxing exhalation, noticing the pauses, noticing what happens in my chakras and in my whole being…

Some of the yogic breathing techniques that have stuck with me through the years are kapalabhati (breath of fire), a rapid bellows breathing that floods the body with cleansing, nourishing oxygen as well as increases motivation — and also prevents discomfort from my hiatal hernia, and nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), calming and believed to balance the hemispheres of the brain.

Were you aware that throughout the day, one of your nostrils is more open than the other, and that they periodically switch sides?

Source: https://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/2015/02/krishnamacharyas-own-asana-and.html

I practice these two techniques every day along with a more modern technique, 4-7-8 breathing, that was taught to Dr. Andrew Weil by his mentor, Dr. Robert Fulford, an American cranial osteopath/shaman (Wikipedia describes him as a pioneer in alternative and energetic medicine) who obviously had studied pranayam.

Dr. Weil recommends doing no more than four rounds of 4-7-8 breathing daily for a couple of months to train the nervous system to quickly move into a relaxed state. I notice that the main times I need to use it are when I’m driving and I narrowly avoid hitting something or being hit.

Another practice that’s not a technique (at least that I’ve ever heard of) is something that occurs in meditation. I call it “being breathed”. It occurs after settling the body and calming the mind, paradoxically by using the breath to relax by lengthening exhalations.

As relaxation/parasympathetic dominance increases, a gradual detachment from controlling the breath allows it to shift to operate on its own, automatically — as it does naturally when we’re not paying attention.

When you notice that your breath has become automatic — you aren’t doing anything to it or with it — you’re simply allowing it to do its thing — breathing becomes completely passive, occurring on its own, and observing it doesn’t change it — that’s what I call being breathed.

There’s a kind of awesomeness to this experience. I wonder if this is what Shri Krishnamacharya, founder of modern yoga, may have been referring to when he said pranayama could result in samadhi.

Am I experiencing samadhi? I don’t know. There’s a sense of oneness and a subtle sense of bliss that permeates. Namaste, my friends.

So that’s my current practice, doing three techniques daily that take 5 minutes, plus meditating (10 minutes with Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, and usually a few more in silence, breathing equally through nose and mouth with my tongue on my palate behind my upper teeth, a Kum Nye technique).

Habit tracking simplified

I do much better when incorporating new behaviors into my life when I have a way to track them that’s visual and shows more than just a few days. I found an online PDF, Habit Tracker, that has space to track up to 17 behaviors for one month, so you can easily view trends, skipped days, etc.

One of the activities that is motivating when trying to develop a new habit is checking off each time you do something on a monthly calendar. When you’ve done it for a few days in a row, you see your streak of successfully incorporating the habit, and you don’t want to break the chain. This technique was attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, but he doesn’t claim credit. Whatever. It works!

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Source: https://www.clementinecreative.co.za/reach-goals-free-printable-habit-tracker/

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