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Yoga Breathing for Ex-smokers

Updated on September 26, 2011

Clearing the Lungs and Improving Posture

A friend of mine just quit smoking after reading Alan Carrs "Easy Way to Quit Smoking." (He read it three times.

He asked me for a breathing exercise to help him clear his lungs.

Any breathing exercise would be helpful but I suggested one that I thought would help his posture, particularly his neck and upper back, and also one that feels comfortable while doing it and is easy to do while sitting or standing around. It can actually be done while using a computer (and so you can also benefit if you use a computer a lot).

This breathing exercise involves pulling your head back and up as you inhale and then letting your head move forward as you exhale.

There are several important points when doing the exercise, and even with me there to coach him, it still took my friend several minutes to get it. Hopefully the explanation that follows will help you learn this simple exercise easily.

Notice how my upper back is rounded in this photo.
Notice how my upper back is rounded in this photo.
Although my upper back is still slightly rounded, it is less rounded than in the above photo.
Although my upper back is still slightly rounded, it is less rounded than in the above photo.

Pull Your Head Back and Up

The first problem was that he wasn't bringing his head far enough back.

If you stood or sat with your back against a wall, the goal would be to touch the back of your head (not bang it) but touch it to the wall by the end of the motion.

Another important action is to focus on lifting the back of your head as well as pulling it back.

The feeling you can look for is one of making the back of your neck long.

And since your cervical vertebrae, the part of your spine that makes up your neck, are mainly towards the back of your neck, you could also focus on making your cervical vertebrae feel stacked as you pull your head back.

Or you could focus on pulling your head back and up away from your ribcage.

Another important aspect of this breathing exercise is to keep your head level as you pull it back. You can think of pulling your chin in but that can take your awareness away from the back of your head and neck. So try to pull your chin in and then direct your awareness to making the back of your neck feel long.

Move Your Chest

Now pulling your head back and then moving it forward isn't so much a breathing exercise as a postural one unless you add a chest movement.

What makes this exercise feel very comfortable is when you allow your chest to lift as you pull your head back. Viewed externally it looks as if your chest and head move together, in sync. It's as if pulling your head back causes your chest to lift and yet at the same time pulling your chest up allows your head to move back.

So that the action feels good, and so that it turns into a breathing movement, the action has to be slow and even more importantly, smooth.

If you are doing the exercise properly, (by proper, I mean "how I am defining it") then what should happen is that as you pull your head backwards, your upper thoracic spine straightens. Then as you move your head forwards the upper thoracic spine bends forwards.

The Upper Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine is the part of your spine to which your ribs attach. The upper thoracic spine supports your neck. When you move your head forwards and backwards I'd say that it is the top 4 or 5 thoracic vertebrae that move the most though the 6th and 7th vertebrae may also move.

Lift Your Sternum... and Lower It

What I have seen some people doing is lean their torso forwards while moving their head forwards. They do this instead of bending their ribcage forwards.

Using the wall may help to alleviate this problem.

With your back against a wall, as before slowly pull your head back and up towards the wall. As you move your head forwards, keep your lower back and lower ribcage against the wall. Allow your head and upper ribcage to peel away from the wall as you move your head forwards. At the same time, let your sternum (the bone at the front of your ribcage) move down. Then as you pull your head back and up slowly lift your sternum.

Teaching Notes

Sometimes when I am teaching people, I place a finger on their sternum, (being very careful with female students to keep my hand away from their breasts and one hand on their back. As they pull their head back and up I pull their sternum up. As they let their head go forwards I push their sternum down.

For people who have difficulty lifting their sternum I focus on pulling their sternum up. With guys this is easier because I can place the whole of my palm on their chest.

Sometimes I also place a knee low on the ribcage. I then use the knee to gently push the bottom of the ribcage forwards and the hand to pull the sternum upwards.

For people who have problems sinking their ribcage then I focus on pushing their sternum down.

Add Your Breath

Once you get the hang of lifting your sternum and pulling your head back and the lowering your sternum while moving your head forwards, you can then focus on your breath while dong these movements.

Pulling your head back and lifting your sternum should naturally cause an inhale while doing the opposite naturally causes an exhale. Letting these movements lead your breath, each time you inhale you can then focus on lifting and expanding the front of your chest. Then exhale and allow your ribcage to lower.


Getting Rid of the Gunk

Because, as an ex smoker, you'll probably have a lot of gunk in your lungs, once you get the hang of this basic exercise, you may choose to work a bit harder on your exhales.

In this case, as your head moves forwards you can focus on squeezing your ribs inwards. You can pull your belly back to your spine at the same time. Focus on smooth and slow. And at the end of the exhale try to make a smooth transition to your inhale. Gently release your belly and ribs and then smoothly lift your ribcage and pull your head back to inhale.

Making Smooth Transitions

If you have trouble making a transition between the inhales and exhales, one thing that may help is thinking of your inhales as upward moving and your exhales as downwards moving. (If the opposite works for you then use it.)

As you end your exhale imagine the downward movement of your exhale slowly stopping. Then smoothly change direction and move upwards into the inhale.

Visualize Light

One other thing that you can add to your breathing is a visualization.

As you inhale imagine while light entering your lungs. As you exhale imagine grey dirty light leaving your body.

In taoist philosophy, white is the color of metal which is the element associated with the lungs. The grey color can represent all the crap that you are breathing out of your lungs.

Be prepared, although I have not experienced this, it is usual when cleaning your body to feel some discomfort. In other words, you may end up feeling like shit. But this will pass as the junk leaves your body.

How Long Should You Practice

When should you practice and for how long?

I'd suggest initially practice a few minutes at a time. Then do it when ever you find yourself with nothing to do or whenever you find yourself wishing for a cigarette. (Also while looking at facebook or reading email.)

To help increase your shoulder ribcage and neck flexibility you can try these stretches for your neck and these stretches for your shoulders. They may make it easier for you to breathe deeper and they offer you an opportunity to practice the same breathing exercises.

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