The way we breathe has a profound impact upon our physical, mental and emotional health. A nerve called the ‘vagus nerve’ runs from the brainstem down to our gut, and along the way it connects to many organs, including our diaphragm. When the vagus nerve senses we’re breathing diaphragmatically (i.e. taking slow, calm abdominal breaths), it sends messages back to the brain that signal we’re in a calm state, and the body is able to stay in the ‘rest and digest’ side of the nervous system. If the vagus nerve senses we’re breathing in a quick, shallow way, and using the ‘accessory breathing muscles’ of the neck and chest however, it sends a message to the brain that something isn’t quite right, releasing hormones that make us feel stressed and tense.
Another aspect that influences our breathing is posture. When we sit in a hunched-over position whilst working at a computer or driving, this can cause the muscles of the chest to become tight, whilst weakening the back muscles, and this rounded posture also compresses the lungs. Yoga is a wonderful way to improve posture and breathing, and the poses in this sequence are designed to help open the chest and lungs, promote relaxation, and create more space for better breathing.
Supported Heart Opener
This restorative posture gently and passively opens the heart, chest and lungs, whilst encouraging relaxation: Place a bolster on the floor vertically behind you, with a block underneath one end to slightly raise it. You may like to sit on top of a brick or folded blanket too, especially if your lower back tends to feel tight or achy. Bend your knees and place your feet flat to the floor, then gently lie back so that your spine is supported by the bolster. Let your arms relax out to the sides, perhaps feeling a gentle stretch in the fronts of your shoulders.
Supported Bridge Pose
The softer version of the active bridge pose, this posture helps to open the hips and relax the back muscles. Having the hips slightly above the head helps boost circulation whilst taking pressure off the lower back muscles too. Lie down with your knees bent and feet flat to the ground. Lift your hips and slide a bolster underneath them. Lower your hips onto the bolster, wriggling around as needed to find the most comfortable position for you.
Dedicated to the heart chakra, this gentle backbend is all about opening the chest, heart and lungs, and encouraging the breath to fill up the sides of the body. Start on your hands and knees, then move your hands forward so they’re a little further forward than your shoulders. Sink your chest towards the floor, perhaps feeling a stretch in the arms and armpits, sides of your body and chest. Allow your head to relax if it feels comfortable to do so.
Open up the lungs and intercostal muscles with this simple side stretch: find a comfortable seated position on a block or cushion. Stretch your right leg out in front of you, and bend your left knee to the side, so that the sole of your foot is against your right thigh. Turn to face your bent knee, and place your right hand on the ground next to your body. Raise your left arm up alongside your ear and lean to your right. As you inhale, reach up through your fingertips. As you exhale, gently reach over into a side stretch, then repeat on the other side. As you stretch, direct your breathing into the side of your body. If your supporting hand does not reach the ground comfortably, bring the ground to you by resting your hand on a brick or block.
Using a long, folded blanket or pranayama pillow along the spine when in Savasana is a wonderful way to encourage more breath awareness, as well as softly opening the front of the body. Lie your rolled blanket or pranayama pillow on the ground, then lie back so that your entire spine is supported. Keep your knees bent if it is more comfortable to do so, or stretch them out whilst you breathe and relax.