Category Archives: Meditation
Ujjayi Pranayama means “victorious breath.” It is often practiced through the entirety of an ashtanga or flow yoga class. It is meant to be calming and rhythmic and help the practitioner focus. Slow, deep inhales followed by long, exhales of roughly the same length. The defining characteristic is the wheezy, ocean-like sound. Ujjayi is an audible breath performed by constricting the throat and tongue slightly while breathing in and out through your nose.
Try this. Sit up straight. Close your eyes. Take a breath in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth and whisper “hahhh”. Feel where it vibrates the back of the throat. Take another breath in through your nose and whisper “hahhh” but press the tongue to the roof of your mouth. Feel where your tongue touches the palate and how the jaw constricts slightly. That’s basically the shape you want for your mouth. Take another deep inhale though the nose and exhale though the nose while retaining the sound. Keep doing this while taking slow, deep abdominal-thoracic breaths.
I personally find it relaxing to perform ujjayi breaths and will consciously or unconsciously start doing it when I take deep breaths to relax or when I meditate. Because the breath is audible, you can focus on it better and thus counting your breaths and the length of your breaths becomes much easier. Because you are restricting the flow of air, you naturally breathe much slower with ujjayi breath and consequently much deeper.
One thing that I rarely hear mentioned about ujjayi breathing is the fact that it aides in spinal stabilization. The throat acts like a valve on abdominal-thoracic cavity. True abdominal bracing is done by creating pressure between the diaphragm and the perineum. However, the slight restriction on the breath helps create pressure as well. In situations where breath holding is ill-advised but some intra-abdominal pressure is necessary, ujjayi breath is a strong choice.
Breathing is a funny thing. We do it all day long out of necessity and rarely give it much thought. However, just because we do it so often doesn’t necessarily mean we are good at it nor are we getting better at it. In fact, I find that a lot of people suffer from “bad breath.” Their breathing patterns are less than stellar. So what? You may ask.
The thing about our breath is that it is linked to our central nervous system; it is tied to physical performance; it is tied our movements; and it is tied to our pain. We can utilize the breath to up-regulate our nervous system or down-regulate our nervous system. We can move in ways that help or hinder our breath. We can use our breath to help alleviate our pain or to mask it.
Our main respiratory muscle is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a key player not only in breath but also in spinal stabilization as it is used to create intra-abdominal pressure. When I assess clients that have chronic pain and/or movement dysfunction they often have “bad breath,” i.e. poor breathing mechanics and poor control of their diaphragm. By teaching people how to breathe properly, I can get them to down regulate and create a physiological state where healing can occur. Proper breathing allows me to better help them stabilize and protect their spines which leads to better, pain-free movement and helps me teach them better movement patterns.
For example, you twist your ankle and it hurts to walk on. Maybe you tore a ligament or strained muscle, you don’t know. All you know is that it hurts. Maybe you went to the doctor, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you took pain killers. It doesn’t matter. Your body senses pain in your foot. Every time you try to walk on it, you wince a little and your body braces itself. It stiffens. You hold your breath a little with each step. You compensate by placing more weight on the other leg and your hips shift with every step. That means your lower back is supported more on one side than the other. After a few days of this, you don’t even know you are compensating and your brain starts to filter out the noise coming from that achy ankle because now you can pretty much get through your day. Six months later your lower back is hurting all the time. You think it’s unrelated. Turns out it is from all the compensating you’ve done to avoid stress on your bad ankle that hasn’t healed.
So are you saying that learning to breathe better will fix my lower back? Not exactly. If you learn to breathe better, you can start to relax a little. That’s important because when you are stress breathing you are up-regulating your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and releasing stress hormones. When you learn how to do abdominal-thoracic breathing you down-regulate and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and get back to homeostasis and this allows your body to better heal itself. Furthermore, once we get you to breathe deeply we can then create some intra-abdominal pressure and teach you how to stabilize your spine. Often that helps relieve some of the back pain. Once your spine is stabilized when you stand you won’t shift your weight over and you will put weight on both feet then suddenly you will realize your ankle still hurts. Finally you can start doing something about that ankle.
This all seems convoluted. It is. The body is a complex system of systems. That is why many people suffer injuries over and over or constantly find themselves getting stalled in their progress. The pain isn’t where the problem started. The pain is where the problem stopped. Going back to the start of the pain is the hard part. Breathing is just one of the vehicles that help us on that journey.
From a practical and functional standpoint, you need to breathe deeper so you can perform better. Learning how to take longer, deeper breaths and create and utilize the full capacity of the lungs is essential to performance. Strengthening the diaphragm is also important because that is one of the stabilizers of the spine. If your spine isn’t stable, you are going to have big problems.
The Three Abodes of Breath
As I eluded to before, there are several ways to breathe. The body being intelligent has redundancies built in so that we can always find a way to breathe. See the video above. The first abode is abdominal breathing. In abdominal breathing we utilize the diaphragm to draw air into the lungs. When the central tendon of the diaphragm contracts, it pulls the giant umbrella shaped muscle down and creates a low pressure system in the lungs. The lungs then draw air in air to balance the pressure. Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and feet close to your butt. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. Inhale into the belly and it should rise up under your hand. Exhale and the belly should fall.
The second abode is thoracic breathing. Thoracic breathing utilizes the intercostal muscles between the ribs to expand the rib cage. The increased diameter of the rib cage creates low pressure in the thoracic cavity and draws air in. Inhale into your chest. The chest should rise up into your hand. You might also feel the back of your ribs press into the floor. ‘
The third abode is clavicular breathing. Clavicular breathing utilizes the levator scapulae and the trapezius muscles to draw the shoulders upward and create low pressure in the upper thoracic cavity and draw air in. Clavicular breathing is associated with stress breathing and panting. It tends to be very shallow. Breath into your shoulders. The shoulders with rise up into your ears. This is called clavicular breathing and should be used infrequently as it is often associated with panic breathing. Unfortunately, many people chronically practice clavicular breathing and are stressed out. Furthermore, they often suffer a lot of shoulder problems because of the overused trapezius muscles that should be doing other things besides helping you breathe all day.
Abdominal Thoracic Breathing
Practice isolating each abode of breath. Compare the sensations associated with each abode. Which one allows you to breathe deepest and which one stresses you out. Now practice abdominal-thoracic breathing. Lie on your back with your eyes closed. Bend your knees and place your heels close to your butt. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. As you inhale you should feel the belly rise up into your hand first and then the chest rise up into the other hand. On the exhale the chest descends then the belly. Continue breathing like this for 10 cycles. Go as slow as you can comfortably.
You should feel calm and relaxed afterwards. If you find it difficult to breathe like this, you need more practice. Most people try too hard at first which actually makes it more difficult to breathe. Do less. Abdominal-thoracic breathing should be your normal relaxed breathing pattern. Chronic pain and movement dysfunction correlate highly with the inability to perform abdominal-thoracic breathing. Practice breathing this way whenever you become conscious of your breath.
In the next exercise we put it all together and link our movement with our breath. It’s called a bridge lift (I demo these at the end of the video). We start in ardha sivasana lying on our backs with our feet by our butt. Our arms by our side. From here we inhale and lift our hips and arms up. Our hips terminate at the top of a bridge pose and our arms continue until they come to rest by our ears. On the exhale we return our hips to the floor and our arms by our sides. The goal is to synchronize the breathing with the movement. Remember the hips move much slower because they travel a much shorter distance than the arms which travel in a 180-degree arc. This is called a vini or vinyasa. The promise of vinyasa yoga is that evenly metered breath coupled with evenly metered movement will result in an even mind.
You will find that you breathe deeper in the bridge lifts because the movement helps facilitate deeper breaths. One reason is that now you are adding clavicular breathing in addition to the abdominal-thoracic breathing. As the arms rise shoulders get pulled up and help draw in more air. This is proper and normal clavicular breathing that occurs
Practice abdominal thoracic breathing and the bridge lifts and work up to sets of 10 breaths. You should feel relaxed and calm afterward. The goal is to move slower and breathe deeper. Not to go fast and get your heart rate up. Do not take your breathing for granted. There is much to be gained by mastering your breath. Some people say “Master your breath, master your life.” I say, “Breathe fucking harder!”
CrossFit seeks to build a program that would best prepare trainees for any physical contingency—prepare them not only for the unknown but for the unknowable. Varying workout elements provides the mechanism for creating a stimulus that is broad, general and inclusive. Any program, no matter how complete, contains within its omissions the parameters for which there will be no adaptation. Routine is the enemy.
However, there is a natural tension that exists between varied stimulus and ordered progression that leads to success in many known tasks. Routine is a double edged sword: it can provide the necessary framework for success or lead to gaping blindspots that lead to the loss of game, mission or life.
Routines are habits and like habits can be good or bad. A good habit like brushing and flossing can be preventative of future pain and disease. And a bad habit like smoking can lead ultimately to illness and death.
The two guiding principles should be dosage and balance.
A routine of exercising everyday is generally favorable. However if your exercise routine every day is the same chances are it will eventually become ineffective and possibly detrimental. For example, if you run 3 miles every morning, at first that might be a huge benefit to your health. However, if the stimulus ceases to be sufficient enough to drive adaptation, you will cease to adapt and get the benefit of that exercise. Secondly, the repetitive stress of running everyday can lead to orthopedic injuries.
Biologically speaking exercise works on the principles of stimulus and adaptation. You overload your body with some stimulus of force, distance or time and your body adapts to that stimulus by creating more muscle fibers or becoming better at gas exchange or becoming more metabolically efficient. When the stimulus ceases to exceed a certain threshold, the body ceases to adapt. That is why all programs vary the parameters over time and progressively get more challenging as the athlete adapts.
The body is wired for survival. If you ask your body to run, it will run. If you ask it to lift, it will lift. However, the body isn’t wired for optimum safety and mechanics. You have to teach it to run and lift with proper mechanics. Each foot strike when you run can send a force of greater than twice your bodyweight into your body. Multiply that by the thousands of foot strikes you will make running 3 miles per day, then ask yourself how long your body can tolerate that before something gives.
Balancing variance with routine is a skill that must be cultivated. Create good habits but make sure those good habits have lots of room for variation. I taught yoga for many years in New York City and sometimes we would be in a studio on the second floor and sirens and the other sounds of the city would bombard us through the windows or we would be in a room inside a gym blasting techno music right outside. And most people found it very challenging to concentrate and relax. I would always remind my student that anybody can go to a mountain retreat and meditate and find peace and quiet but the true object of meditation is to find peace and quiet while in the middle of the storm of noise in the city.
Setting aside 6 minutes of 60 minutes every day to exercise is a good routine, but make sure that within that time you allotted that you have made it hard and stressful and taken yourself outside your comfort zone.
I, like many people especially crossfitters, am constantly trying to improve myself. I devour multiple forms of media (books, audiobooks, podcasts and videos) on self-improvement. Many of these sources will encourage the person seeking improvement to meditate. Meditation takes many forms but is almost universally regarded as a necessary practice for those wishing to live better lives. How does meditation work? Why does it work? What does it do? How will meditation help you? Like anything worthwhile you have to find out for yourself: it’s experiential.
I believe meditation is a gateway to self-acceptance and love which are pre-requisites to true growth and fulfillment. Without the ability to love and accept yourself as you are, any gains you achieve will never be enough to fulfill and satisfy you. I often fall out of practice with meditation and it is usually when I need it most, not when it’s most convenient. I invite you to start a meditation practice.
One of my go-to meditation practices is to simply count my breaths. I sit comfortably, set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, close my eyes and begin counting my breaths. When I am inhaling I am focusing on the inhale and when I’m exhaling I focus on the exhale and when I lose count, I start over at one. Sometimes when I’m sitting on a train I simply start counting my breaths and decide at 10 breaths whether I’m done or wish to keep going. The goal is not to get more breaths or less breaths (although slower, more measure breathing is preferable). The goal is not to keep fastidious count and beat yourself up if you forget where you are (although you will almost definitely do that). The goal is just to be present to you and your body and learn to focus on one thing. You could count your heartbeats if you can sense them. You could count the ticks of your watch if it ticks loud enough. Just be present and attentive and let that be its own reward.