Introduction to Core-Engaging Breath
This simple yoga practice helps to link your breath to the movements of your spine and the muscles commonly referred to as the core: your diaphragm, the stabilizing muscles that attach directly to the spine, and the pelvic floor muscles. It is a great way to learn to work with your deep core muscles that prepare your body for any yoga practice at any level.
True core work is subtle and deep. It requires mindful attention to locate your center, but the benefits of working from a place of deep stability make it well worth the effort. Once you’ve mastered this breath on your back, take it into the rest of your asana practice. Notice the stabilizing effect you can achieve in any standing, balancing, or flowing yoga sequence when you’ve truly engaged from a place of stability.
This kind of breath work may look simple, but it actually can pack a wallop! It’s best to start slowly, with an exploration of simple breath awareness. This gives your body a chance to build slowly to more muscular core work in yoga. The breath awareness practice can be done on its own as a warmup, preparation for meditation, or anytime you need a quick pause to refresh and destress. Focusing attention on your natural, unforced breath will generally produce both a more shallow and more calming breath experience.
How to Practice Simple Breath Awareness
- Lie on your back in a relaxed position. Choose a position that is comfortable for your lower back: Legs straight, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, or with knees cushioned by a yoga bolster or rolled-up blanket as shown here. You may also choose to place a blanket under your head, as long as you don’t displace your neck.
- Start with a simple breath observation. Without force, or trying to breathe in any particular way, notice the play of your natural breath on your body. Watch the gentle flow of your inhalation and exhalation. Keep your lips together and teeth gently parted. Breathe only through your nose throughout. Note the sensation of cooler air coming into the body and warmer air being released. Notice how your body responds to this quiet, gentle breath.
- You may enjoy placing one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly for this exploration. Your lower hand should move less than your top hand. If your top hand is noticeably moving, you are either overworking your breath or using accessory muscles to breathe. If this is the case, pause here and quiet the movement of your upper chest before continuing.
How to Practice Supine Core Breathing
- Notice the slight expansion of your belly upon natural inhalation. This is a result of your diaphragm contracting and moving into your abdominal cavity to make room for the incoming air.
- Follow your breath on exhalation and begin to sense the natural drawing in on all sides of the soft tissue (muscles, fascia, etc.) that encompasses your spine. Notice the slight inward and upward engagement of your muscles as your diaphragm moves back up into your chest cavity.
- Once you can feel the natural drawing in of the lower abdominal muscles on the exhalation, begin to engage them with purpose. Progressively begin to lengthen the exhalation, coordinating the muscle action with your breath. Try to engage your muscles sequentially from the pelvis, to the naval, to the rib cage area.
- Maintain a steady breath rhythm. When you lengthen your exhalation, your inhalation will naturally increase, but resist the urge to take a big gulp of breath.
- Once you have found this integrated action between inhalation and exhalation, you can begin to introduce a 1-2 second pause at the end of the exhalation, during which you can continue to increase the core muscle engagement.
- Keep your inhalation slow and steady, as you release your abdominal muscles from the top down with control.
- Your breathing should be controlled and steady throughout. If your heart is noticeably beating or you feel winded, you are most likely overworking your breath. In that case, do less and pause between breath cycles.
Once you’ve mastered linking your breath to your core in the supine position, practice it in seated and standing yoga positions. Having practiced engaging your core during your warmup, the next step is to find ways to incorporate this technique into the rest of your yoga practice.
Having trouble feeling your core engage? Take a tip from the singing world and add a sound, specifically, the sound of “shushhhhhhh.”
- Inhale a normal breath through your nose, hold for a beat or two, then progressively exhale slowly through your teeth as you make the sound (shhh) you’d make if you were trying to hush someone who was speaking out loud at the movies.
- Keep the breath steady and progressive, as you key into the sensation of the muscles in your lower abdomen.
- Pause at the end of the exhalation and allow your body to inhale itself, avoiding the temptation to take a big gulp of breath.
- After a few breath cycles, when you can feel those deep muscles beginning to engage, bring your lips together, drop the “shhh” and exhale through your nose. Take the whole breath inside, so that the muscles are engaging but your breath is quiet.
- In the end, both inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose. Slowing the exhalation down and introducing small pauses at the top of the inhalation and the bottom of the exaltation will amplify the toning effect. The pauses should feel comfortable.
Creating core stability enhances all movement, whether on or off the yoga mat and can be considered a worthwhile practice all on its own! Core stability enables better posture and balance, freer breath, and fluidity in movement in all planes.