alan little’s weblog

ujayi breathing

25th September 2004 permanent link

Michael Smith links to a couple of articles about how diaphragmatic breathing and inverted yoga postures (shoulderstand, headstand) stimulate the lymphatic system - “the respiratory diaphragm is the main pump of the lymphatic system” (Kelly McGonigal). Fascinating.

I realise here that I'm about to try to use words to explain something that needs pictures. I'll give it a go anyway. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that forms the floor of the thorax and the ceiling of the abdomen. Its centre is a tendon that rests on top of the abdominal organs and is indirectly tethered to the spine; its periphery is attached to the bottom of the ribcage. When the diaphragm tenses, two things happen: the centre pushes down on the abdominal organs, and the periphery pushes the ribs upwards and outwards. Ujayi breathing is a yogic breathing technique which is supposed to be used throughout an ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice, and is also done as a standalone breathing practice in other types of yoga. Ujayi breathing is done with the pelvic floor and lower abdominal wall lightly tensed (“bandhas”). This stabilises and slightly pressurises the abdominal organs, supporting the diaphragm firmly from below so that when it contracts, the centre can't move downwards (much). Instead (most of) the movement goes into expanding the ribcage.

David Coulter's marvellous book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga describes all this in more detail (with pictures) and points out the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing for lung capacity and blood gas levels, but I don't recall him mentioning the lymphatic system.

The technique recommended in McGonagal's article is different from ujayi breathing. She recommends lying on the back with a weight on the stomach, and then using diaphragm breathing to push the abdominal wall up and down. In this case the periphery of the diaphragm would appear to be held (relatively) still and the centre would move (more), actively pushing down on the abdominal organs to lift the stomach wall. Interesting, but I think I'll stick with my ujayi breathing during ashtanga practice. Should have much the same effect. (Controlled trials, anyone?)

Here we get to an area where I have some concerns about the idea of yoga therapy, or the borrowing of techniques from yoga to use as physical therapy for particular medical conditions. I firmly believe that many yoga techniques are capable of achieving the physical benefits that are attributed to them in old yoga texts. But I also think it probably takes years of diligent practice to develop the muscle control and body awareness needed to do them effectively and safely(*). Medical trials and systematised yoga therapy want results what are achievable quickly - months rather than years - and repeatable by large numbers of people who aren't motivated to devote large parts of their lives to yoga practice. About that I'm sceptical.

Take another example: use of yoga breathing techniques to assist in pregnancy and childbirth. I'm quite sure that women who already have advanced yoga practices can have enough diaphragm and pelvic floor control to help significantly in childbirth. I'd need to be convinced that somebody who hasn't already practiced these techniques for years can learn enough of them to be useful in six months. (Disclaimer: I am speculating. I have no first hand experience of pregnancy or childbirth).

(*) The other article Michael links to discusses how inversions - shoulderstands and headstands - quite possibly do have the benefits for the circulatory, lymphatic and endocrine systems that yoga teachers attribute to them. But it also cites examples of how they can cause problems in the neck and upper spine, even for experienced practitioners, if they're not taught safely and practiced carefully.

related entries: Yoga

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