Yoga is a process of spiritual self-remembering. Translations of the word “yoga” emphasize the concepts of harmony, union, and the consolidation of personality for a higher goal, and in this journey breath awareness is an essential tool. Breathing forms the link between body and mind. It bridges the gulf between the individual self and the outer reality. When breath is present, life is present. Without the breath, life departs.
The process of learning good breathing habits often starts in the very first yoga class, and it is the rare student these days who has not at least heard about the importance of diaphragmatic breathing. For many students, however, practice falls short of theory. Our ability to breathe diaphragmatically is hampered by misconceptions, lack of muscle strength, and lack of awareness.
Sandbag breathing can remedy these difficulties. The practice gets its name because it uses a sand-filled bag resting on the abdomen to build strength. Simple and time-effective, sandbag breathing will give you the strength you need for successful diaphragmatic breathing and the confidence you need to do it easily.
The Rationale for Sandbag Breathing
The lungs, diaphragm, organs of the abdomen, and muscles lying on the surface of the abdominal wall all interact when your breathing is relaxed. The diaphragm divides the torso into two parts.
Above the diaphragm lie the heart and lungs. Tightly packed below it lie all of the organs of the abdomen, including the liver, stomach, pancreas, bowels, kidneys, and bladder—and often generous amounts of fat.
It is said that the diaphragm is dome-shaped, but this gives the impression that the diaphragm is one large mass of dome-shaped muscle.
Actually, it is a combination of muscle and tendon. The inner portion of the diaphragm, which lies directly beneath the lungs, is a tendon that does not contract or expand in breathing. The muscular portion of the diaphragm lies around this central tendon, attaching to the walls of the rib cage. It is the muscular portion of the diaphragm that contracts and expands, moving the central tendon down within the body as if it were the floor of an elevator. The result is normal breathing.
When the muscular periphery of the diaphragm contracts, it pulls the central tendon down, expanding the lungs and pressing down on the organs beneath the diaphragm. When the muscular portion relaxes, the central tendon rises again—pulled upward by a variety of forces from above. The inhalation is an active process; the exhalation is normally passive and relaxed.
But even though exhalation is relaxed, there are special circumstances in which it needs to be controlled. If you swallow a bug, for instance, a vigorous exhalation clears your throat. Singers and speakers control the length of their exhalation in order to produce sustained phrases of song or speech. Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake requires a sustained, forceful exhalation, focused by the lips. Whenever the exhalation needs to be controlled, the muscles of the abdominal wall come into play, for controlling them controls the pressure exerted on the organs of the abdomen, and thus regulates the ascent of the diaphragm. This special control is only necessary in specific circumstances, however; it is not necessary for normal diaphragmatic breathing.
Like any skeletal muscles in the human body, the diaphragm and the muscles forming the wall of the abdomen can be either weak or strong, and a weak diaphragm, usually the result of poor breathing habits, makes breathing inefficient. No matter how clear the concept of diaphragmatic breathing may be, if the diaphragm is weak then breathing is less effective than it can be. Sandbag breathing strengthens the diaphragm and helps develop a relaxed control of the abdominal area, thus increasing breath awareness and relaxing the nervous system.
The Practice of Sandbag Breathing
The practice is quite simple:
Lie on your back with a thin cushion supporting the head and neck. The legs are slightly apart and the arms rest along the side of the body, palms turned up.
The spine is not bent to either side.
Establish a flow of relaxed breathing, in three steps:
Feel the breath flowing out and in, over and over again.
Soften the abdomen and feel it rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
Let the breath flow without pause between the breaths.
Once the flow of breath is well established, place a sandbag on the abdomen and begin a period of weight training. You will find that simply placing the weight on the abdomen focuses your attention there. Breathe out and in, raising the weight as you inhale, and lowering the weight as you exhale. You are not pushing the bag up by protruding the abdomen. The bag rises from the motion of the diaphragm.
The weight on the abdomen requires you to work a little harder to inhale and expand the lungs. As you exhale, the sandbag will naturally push down, causing the breath to flow out quickly. Regulate your exhalation so that it is relaxed and approximately the same length as the inhalation. In this way sandbag breathing not only strengthens the diaphragm, it tones the muscles of the abdomen as well.
Observe your capacity. If you become tired or recognize that you cannot breathe as deeply as before, take the weight off.
Start with a practice time of about five minutes. Then take the weight off and continue to breathe, relaxing the abdomen and being aware of the sensation of breathing without the sandbag. You will find a noticeable difference in the feel of your breath even after a short period of sandbag breathing. After resting for a few minutes, come back to a sitting posture.
One practical way to organize this practice is to establish a schedule of three days on and one day off for a month. Gradually increase the practice time from five minutes to ten minutes, and increase the weight from eight to fourteen pounds. (Very committed students may eventually wish to place a second sandbag on top of the first, doubling the weight.) Practice once or twice a day. Be mindful of your capacity—do not increase the weight or length of practice time too quickly. After a month you will find that your diaphragm has been strengthened, your breath will be deeper and more efficient, and you will feel noticeably more confident about your breathing. This period of a month’s practice can be repeated at any time to further increase muscle tone.
Hatha Yoga Postures
To complement your regimen of sandbag breathing there are two kinds of yoga postures that are especially helpful in strengthening the diaphragm: inverted poses and twisting poses. Inverted postures place the weight of the abdominal organs on the diaphragm, so that during inhalation the diaphragm must lift them. This is not particularly difficult for someone with a strong diaphragm, but the effect of inverting the body can be noticeable. As holding time increases, the beneficial effect of the posture on the diaphragm also increases.
Twisting postures are even more effective for strengthening the diaphragm. Nearly every student experiences some discomfort in twisting postures because when the body is twisted, intra-abdominal pressure increases, making it more difficult to contract the diaphragm. (Intra-abdominal pressure is similar to the pressure created in a washrag when it is twisted to squeeze the water out. The action of twisting makes the rag hard and resistant to bending.)
When the difficulty of physically maintaining the twist is combined with discomfort in breathing, twisting postures can become downright annoying. Don’t avoid them, however, because once the twist can be maintained for any length of time, focusing your attention on breathing will completely change the experience of the posture. The motto “In a tight spot, breathe” is particularly applicable. Breathing shifts attention away from muscular fatigue, relaxes the mental distress of holding a twist, and returns attention to an inner focus.
It is important to relax the abdomen during twisting postures. Tightening the abdomen impedes it; when the abdomen is relaxed it allows the diaphragm to operate naturally. Then, as the diaphragm works against the pressure in the abdomen, it is strengthened. Many other stretches and postures also have a beneficial effect on breathing. Overhead stretches, side bends, backward bending postures, and seated forward bends all are useful, so a program of sandbag breathing and yoga postures is an extremely effective combination for breath training.
Who Will Benefit?
Sandbag breathing is not just for those who feel uncertain about the strength of their diaphragm. Virtually everyone will benefit from a one-month regimen of sandbag work. Training of this kind makes breathing more efficient, and it can be particularly helpful for those who are suffering from anxiety or depression. The practice helps to increase breath awareness throughout the day and develops a rock-solid “feel” of the diaphragmatic movement of breath.
Through sandbag breathing, experienced yoga students will acquire a more subtle awareness of the dynamics of breath. The normal, very modest resistance of the organs of the abdomen against the movement of the diaphragm will become obvious, and lead to an understanding of the forces of breathing within your own body. Then the theory and the experience of breathing will become one and the same.
Sandbag breathing strengthens the diaphragm and improves breath awareness, but you need to have an accurate understanding of diaphragmatic breathing before you begin. Practiced regularly for one month, the exercise will lead to a deep, relaxed diaphragmatic breath. Be aware of your capacity as you practice, and increase the length of time and the weight of the sandbag gradually. Use yoga postures to complement your work. Since diaphragmatic breathing forms the basis for virtually all other yoga breathing practices, the benefits of sandbag breathing will continue long after the practice has been completed.