By YGSF Teacher Elaine Oyang
The diaphragm is a big, dome-shaped sheath of muscle hugging just underneath our ribcage and separates the thoracic cavity (chest) from the abdominal cavity. It serves as the primary breathing muscle (note: NOT the lungs!). At rest (e.g., not breathing), the diaphragm creates a dome. Before inhaling, the diaphragm pulls down and flattens out to creative negative pressure inside the body, hence drawing the air in. As the diaphragm presses down on the abdominal cavity, our digestive organs are pressed down and out, hence the protrusion of the belly.
If you were to observe a baby breathing, you’d notice that he is breathing into the belly. It is our innate nature to stimulate the diaphragm, but overtime environmental stressors have caused us to breathe more shallowly. Contrary to the common notions of breathing, where we breath mainly into the chest, activating our diaphragm to retrieve air is much more efficient. Not only do we draw in more air and maximize the amount of oxygen going into the bloodstream, when we contract our diaphragm we also stimulate the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation. The downward motion of the diaphragm also gives our digestive organs a good massage. There have even been studies showing that some cases anxiety, stress, and depression can be resolved by deep-breathing exercises.
So why do we want to breathe deeply in our yoga practices? Well, first of all, many of us probably came to yoga to find some sort of relaxation, to promote calmness, to get away from the craziness and stress of life. Breathing is one of the critical factors to stimulate relaxation. Second of all-and this applies particularly if you are attending a strong vinyasa class-if you are breathing shallowly into the chest while trembling in your Warrior II pose, your bodywill kick into stress mode. By taking in deep breaths in more difficult postures, you are focusing the mind on the breaths rather than the fatigue in your thighs, you are transporting oxygen in the bloodstream to feed your muscles to support the asana, and your mind won’t think that holding Warrior II poses harm to your life. . .
Elaine was first exposed to yoga in 2006 in Taiwan and soon became a devotee to Ashtanga Yoga. She was awed by its dynamic flow of movement, linking breath to body, and body to mind. In 2011, she traveled to Thailand for teacher training with Paul Dallaghan. Since then, she has returned two more times for continuing education on pranayama and female anatomy.
Elaine finds joy in helping people find themselves through yoga. Her mission is to spread yoga to all of the community, regardless of age, shape, size, flexibility, and strength. She believes that with the right intention, anyone can do yoga. She now lives in Berkeley, CA, where she works as a children’s culinary and nutrition instructor, yoga student and teacher.