The holidays are approaching, and the panic is setting in. You have to get presents for your family (and you can’t forget your pole sisters and brothers!), and buy a tree, and – gasp – what are you going to cook this year? And when are you going to find the time to get in some stretching and pole!? In the throes of all this holiday madness, remember, at the end of the day there’s only one thing that you absolutely have to do: breathe. This month we’ll discuss different breathing strategies to use during stretching, and maybe a few that you can use to keep calm for the holidays!
To find out more about the benefits of breathing correctly – and how to do it, I met with Sharon Doran-Ballenger, founder of Total Harmony Yoga in San Antonio, Texas. Sharon received her BS in Exercise Science from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is a Certified E-RYT 500 Hr. Yoga Instructor with the National Yoga Alliance. She is an excellent ambassador for total body fitness, and I am so excited to share her knowledge with you this month!
VC: Hi Sharon! Thanks for meeting with me today! Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what you do now?
SDB: Hi Tori! Very nice to be here. Thank so much for having me. I grew up studying dance from age 6 until I was about 20 or so, and because I had to stay in tip top shape… I was always actively involved in gyms & fitness centers. But it wasn’t really until about halfway through my first year of college that I discovered yoga. I was in California at the time, and decided to go with a friend to a yoga class. I immediately fell in love with the practice and how it made me feel…almost euphoric, and soon realized that this was something that I wanted to do and feel forever. Eventually I enrolled in a teacher training course, received my certificate to teach, and began my yoga journey. I’ve been practicing and teaching now for over 30 years. I currently own a yoga studio and run a teacher training program here in San Antonio, Texas with my amazing husband Kevin, who also teaches yoga.
VC: What makes Total Harmony Yoga unique?
SDB: What makes our studio unique is that we are extremely passionate about what we do and the impact we make on others – changing people’s lives…helping them create a lifestyle of health and well-being. But I think that what sets us apart more than anything else is that we have continued to stay true to the intention of yoga by integrating the ancient spiritual teachings of the past, and combining that with medical knowledge and exercise science of today, to formulate a program to promote a healthy mind, body & spirit that anyone can participate in.
VC: This month is all about breathing. Can you tell us what the big deal about proper breathing is? Why can’t we just focus on the stretches and breathe normally?
SDB: So, what’s all the hubbub about proper breathing? Well, for starters…the body depends on breathing for the intake of oxygen and the exhalation of waste matter in the form of carbon dioxide. But, breath is not only chemical…breath is also energy. And, proper breathing can help make you more energetic. Breathe is life! Yet, we know so little about it, or how important it is to our vitality. We’ve always been taught to suck in our guts and puff out our chest…which causes the muscles to tense and respiration to increase. As a result, many of us become shallow “chest breathers”, using only the middle and upper portions of the lungs to breathe. So, technically we are really only using as little as 20% of our lung capacity. So proper breathing is essential, as it not only improves our focus and brings increased oxygen to our nervous system, but it also slows our heart rate down so that we are less anxious and stressed. It also filters out impurities from our body, humidifies the air we breathe, warms and cools our body temperature, and activates our relaxation response. The essential purpose of breathing is to warm up the body and help bring awareness to yourself, thereby allowing you to feel the full benefits of your stretches once you begin them…this why we breathe before we stretch and continue to breathe during our stretches. Furthermore, breathing can relax our muscles, allowing them to stretch more easily. It can also help heal the body by increasing circulation and flexibility, and strengthening our ribs and spine. And with an increased supply of oxygen, we are nourishing our brain and our body, which helps us stretch with greater ease and focus, preventing injuries and relieving stress. Studies have shown that by simply learning how to breathe correctly can have remarkable effects on our entire body.
VC: Ok, I’m on board, but I’ve been breathing my entire life! Is it hard to get into the habit of breathing the correct way when you’re stretching?
SDB: It can be challenging for us when we first begin to introduce ourselves to proper breathing exercises, but it does get easier and more natural to us the more we continue to practice. When we breathe naturally…our breath wants to flow full and it brings us to a more peaceful state of mind. It’s only when we encounter mental or emotional traumas or stresses that we learn different breathing habits that restrict natural flow. For instance, when we are threatened or upset….our whole body tightens as we enter a state commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In such a state, we are reduced to our basic survival instincts – the abdomen tightens, our breath becomes restricted, and quick shallow chest breathing results leading to long-term unhealthy breathing habits. Tori, we’ve all been breathing our entire life….and as babies, we come into this world already breathing correctly. Babies breathe with their whole body, as if every part expands and contracts with the movement of their breath. But as babies grow they shift from healthy breathing to shallow chest breathing because they pick-up these improper habits from adults around them. But, the good news is that it’s not hard to get yourself back into the habit of breathing correctly. It’s like riding a bike…you never forget how.
VC: How long did it take you to change your breathing habits? What helped you remember to breathe properly while still getting your form right?
SDB: Once I realized that I was breathing incorrectly in the first place, it didn’t take me long to adjust my breathing habits, because I felt my tension and tightness relax, soften and dissipate. It gave me a break from my usual activities of analyzing, reasoning and judging. Some of the things that helped me remember to breathe while stretching or exercising was to just try to focus my attention to the sensation of my breath itself….Just noticing when I was breathing in and breathing out. I would just follow the trail of my breath with my mind, and if my mind began to drift to other thoughts or concerns, I’d gently bring my attention back to my breath. What seemed to help me the most was just simply inhaling slowly to the count of 5, and exhaling slowly to the count of 5, and remembering to only breathe in and out through my nose. When you’re stretching, it’s very important to remember that you should be breathing in…inhaling….when your body comes up or you open through the chest, and you should be breathing-out…exhaling….when your body comes down or your chest collapses and your upper back rounds. (See cat and cow poses for examples)
VC: Alright, so I’m committed to changing my breathing habits for the better, what’s the first thing I need to know?
SDB: Well, the first thing you’ll need to know is that you should be taking it step by step. Whatever posture you choose to be in, you’ll want to make sure that the spine remains upright to make breathing exercises more effective. So, if you were seated…or even standing…for example, you would reach up through the top of your head to lengthen your spine, then draw the shoulders back and relax them downward.
VC: Go On!
SDB: As you move through your stretches, you’d want to keep this same body form in mind. Make sure you are truly lengthening your body in each stretch…. lifting tall, and opening from limb to limb, and that you are completely grounded or supported.
VC: I think I understand it in theory, but can you walk us through some exercises to help us understand these concepts in practice?
SDB: Sure… Let me walk you through a simple breathing technique. Let’s begin sitting in a chair. Come to the front edge of the chair so that your feet are touching the floor, and bring your hands to rest on the tops of your knees or thighs. Begin to sit up tall, reaching up through the top of your head to lengthen your spine. Close your eyes, and close your mouth and begin breathing through your nose. As you breathe, bring your focus to your breath, making it long and relaxed with each inhalation and exhalation. Begin releasing any tension or tightness from your face….softening your forehead, eyes, cheeks, mouth and jaw. Also make sure you aren’t clenching your teeth! And just let your tongue rest on the roof of your mouth as your continue to breathe, in and out through your nose. As you breathe in….imagine you are breathing in strength and energy, and that you are filling your body the peace and happiness. And, as you breathe out….imagine you are releasing and tensions or worries….feeling your body relax and let go. Continue this visualization as your breathe for about 8 to 10 breaths. When you are finished….open your eyes slowly and notice how you feel.
VC: What a great exercise, I feel better already! Are there any other benefits to these breathing exercises?
SDB: Oh yes…there are many benefits to these sort of breathing exercises. Not only do they relieve stress and stress related disorders. They improve autonomic function (our nervous system). They can relieve symptoms of asthma, help improve concentration and focus, and increase the oxygen levels to our brain and body, as well as increase body temperature and circulation, improve lung function and capacity, strengthen our diaphragm, massage our internal organs, and help relax the muscles so that they stretch more easily when we begin any activity. Breathing exercises have also been known to relieve depression, hypertension, and anxiety by reducing distractions and re-energizing the body.
VC: Do you have any other advice for people who are trying to increase their flexibility?
SDB: My advice to anyone trying to increase their flexibility is to take up yoga. Yoga can be an excellent cross-training tool to any exercise program you participate in. It not only releases physical and mental tension, but it liberates a vast source of energy. By practicing yoga, one will exercise every part of the body by stretching and toning the muscles, joints, and the spine and the entire skeletal system. And, the breathing exercises you do in a yoga practice will revitalize the body and help calm the mind…giving you increased clarity, mental power and concentration. It a nutshell….it will keep your body fit and supple.
VC: Thank you again for taking time to talk with me! Is there anything else you’d like add?
SDB: I would just like to say ‘thank you’ again for inviting me to share a little insight on breathing and yoga. I wish you peace and a more fulfilled life.
For more tips and updates from Sharon and her husband Kevin, you can search Total Harmony Yoga on Facebook, or follow @Total_Harmony on Twitter or Instagram (search total_harmony_yoga.) Until next month, be well and stretch often!
Next Issue Sneak Peek: Cold Weather Stretching – How to keep the core heat high when the temperature is low!
Author Bio: Victoria began her pole journey in 2009 in Maryland, USA. She is passionate about many of the aerial and circus arts and she is also very good at Twister. Currently, Victoria is a pole fitness and contortion instructor at Soft Sensuous Moves in San Antonio, TX. For more inspiration and stretching tips, you can follow her on Twitter @tori_contortia
Disclaimer: The content of this article is only for general information and is not intended to be viewed as a medical advice. As is the case with all sports, contortion does include the risk of injury. You should obtain your doctor’s approval before engaging in this or any other fitness related activity. Neither Victoria Contortia (the author) nor Pole2Pole Magazine are liable for any injuries sustained as a result of the activities listed in this article.
Photos by: Stefan Reyes