Sometimes I suffer from shortness of breath. I think it’s to do with my tight chest and shoulders. I also can’t tilt my head back far because of a past spinal injury. What poses or exercises will help me breathe better? Terri, Hawks Nest, NSW
Alleviating shortness of breath is a surprisingly easy thing to do, as long as you can work on it regularly. Firstly, you need to open up your chest and shoulders. Three simple asanas will help you do this: Marjaryasana to Bitilasana (Cat to Cow Pose); Sucirandhrasana (Eye-of-the-Needle Pose) and Parighasana (Gate Pose). You can modify the Marjaryasana to Bitilasana for your neck problem by not extending your head backwards in Bitilasana. Aim for a daily practice of doing Marjaryasana to Bitilasana 10 to 20 times (inhaling during Marjaryasana and exhaling during Bitilasana), followed by Sucirandhrasana and then Parighasana, holding these poses for one minute on each side of your body.
The best breathing exercise to help you strengthen and deepen your breathing is the full yogic breath.
A full yogic breath brings oxygen into your entire lungs, and does so with three components: a belly breath, a side-chest breath and an upper-chest breath, in that order.
You can do this exercise either lying on your back or sitting comfortably. Place your hands on to your abdomen and gently breathe into your hands, then exhale and relax. Then place your hands on the sides of the ribs and let your breath fill this area, exhale and relax. Lastly, place your hands on your collarbone and breathe into this space. Repeat this 10 to 20 times each day, after your asanas.
When you are exhaling in the full yogic breath, think about gently pulling in your abdomen and pelvic-floor muscles at the end of each exhalation, as this will help deepen your breath. If you want to alleviate anxiety, particular attention should be paid to lengthening the timing of your exhalation. Slowing the breath rate calms the nervous system.
Breathwork is a vital component of yoga practice and you will certainly benefit from your efforts here.
Rachel Stanley is a physiotherapist with 20 years’ experience in yoga exercise therapy.