Questions & Answers about Yoga, Anatomy and Practice

This page features answers to some questions that students, workshop participants or clients have written to me about. 



I have a little question for the anatomy guru. It's about breathing - I'm reading a book called 'yoga benefits are in breathing less'. It talks about how modern yoga teachers often say to breathe more, breathe deeply, keep breathing, etc etc but actually the benefits are in slowing the breath down and reducing the frequency of breath (maybe you've read it).

I see how this fits in with breath retention, lengthening exhale, stilling the breath. Do you have a take on this, how it relates to asana instruction and also general breathing during the day?  



The author of that book is not so much about breathing less it seems, but breathing better. Most people have really poor breathing technique as we might call it. Shallow, fast breath is a common term for it. Deeper (and slower!) breath that accesses other areas of the lungs and leads to improved gas exchange and balance. From the 'average' person's almost hyperventilating breath rate, we certainly need to slow down. Much effort for little gain. Efficiency is a good term here. 

The focus on oxygen alone complicates things. Our body, as you might have read, isn't only that interested in oxygen but keeps monitoring the carbon dioxide. The ratio and saturation of both of these gases in the blood stream and at the tissue level is important.

One confusing detail is in the mixing and misunderstanding of pranayama, asana and classical texts. Patanjali and the yoga sutras were way before yoga asana became popular and cannot be quoted or referred to in that context. 

Pranayama is outlined as being about the pauses in-between the breath. Many modern teachers forget or do not know this, hence what is practiced produces varying effects.

Asana practice, particular modern exercise based vinyasa yoga, is that - exercise. We need to supply sufficient oxygen - with good technique - to the muscles if we want to avoid cramping. Overbreathing, hyperventilating, can expell too much carbon dioxide from the body. Oxygen, however, will only be delivered to the tissues along a CO2 gradient. No CO2, no O2 delivery. In the book the author gives many examples of how an improved balance of CO2 and O2 in the body enhance physiological functions.

Encouraging beginning students not to hold their breath is helpful to maintain evenness and rhythm of breath along with breath awareness. Again hyperventilating or huffing and puffing are counterproductive, as is the often practiced overly loud ujjayi breath. 

I agree in most points with the ideas of the author of the book you're reading. When we regard the statements as relative rather than absolute it begins to make more sense. The book mentions very slow breathing at rest through the nose at 12 breaths per minute. Which breathing habit applies to you? Where are you at right now, in this practice? What approach makes you feel better? Experiment. Buteyko breathing is 'good stuff'. 



Imbalanced Sides of Body

I have a question for you! Last week I realized that in my downward dog, my hands are not even (in terms of where I place them). And in looking at my habits (sparring in kickboxing for left hand reaches out while right hand is closer to body).

Anyways, I think my right side is tighter than my left side. In poses like DWD, my left hand is further out...and I guess that affects my balance. And maybe that's part of the reason my left wrist bone has been sore all this time!!

My question is, how does the practice accommodate differences in how body is "split". I mean, we work both sides in warrior etc. but what happens in DWD or other symmetrical poses? How do you even the sides out? Like in my DWD, would I reach out further with my right side and work on lengthening that side...or do I go somewhere in between - left in a bit and right out a bit.



Good body perception to notice that left-right difference in your practice.

To some degree we all have this ‘imbalance’. We are either right or left handed, carry our bag, or handle out phone with a dominant hand. In your case where you might have developed protective habits from kickboxing for example, a tighter and a more open side from different muscle activations develops. 

Other origins of this can lie in rotations of the spine or torso. Either from within the spine itself, or even from the hips and their effect on the sacrum. You might remember from our classes that the feet, their position and arches influence the hips and spine as well. 

Since yoga practice is a practice of moving with awareness you have multiple options to address this unevenness, and with that the wrist discomfort. Your suggestion of reaching out more with your right hand is a good one for DWD. If indeed the origin is from a relative tightening somewhere, creating space throughout that tight side could be a good approach. Your feedback will come form the weight on the wrists. Also make sure your hands are engaged evenly as this also effects the forces in the wrists. Look at yourself in a mirror in tadasana and check for hip evenness, any torsion in the pelvis or spine, uneven tension in the shoulders. This shows the area you can focus your attention on to create more balance when practicing. 

Every pose, no matter if standing, seated or inverted, serves as a feedback mechanism for evenness of the body. Each pose then allows the individual adaptation to lengthen out of tight areas and activate or strengthen those that are leading to unevenness from lack of tone. This could for example be the case in shoulder stabilization.