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The Neuroscience of Balance or: To Breathe is to Balance

The Neuroscience of Balance or: To Breathe is to Balance

Balance. We often take balance for granted when in fact, the simple act of standing is a complex physiological feat.  Let us explore.  In a very basic definition of balance 3 main physiological process are evident:

Maintaining balance while standing in the stationary position relies on intact sensory pathways, sensorimotor integration centers and motor pathways.The main sensory inputs are:

  1. Joint position sense (proprioception), carried in the dorsal columns of the spinal cord;
  2. Vision
  3. Vestibular apparatus

Crucially, the brain can obtain sufficient information to maintain balance if any two of the three systems are intact.

Ok, if you read our blog you should be familiar with the term proprioception, the ability to track your body in space.  The 2 other main sources for information our brains need for balance are visual input and vestibular (meaning, inner ear).  The organism of the inner ear can help your brain track head movement, another form of spatial orientation.  This all makes sense so far…

Let’s dig a little deeper.  The brain has to be able to process and synthesize these separate bits of information to help us achieve and maintain consistent balance.  In other words, for most people, our brains can quickly process different and changing sources of information to help us function in a gravitational field.  So, how quickly?  Well, in terms of processing proprioceptive response the slower parts of us is quoted as “up to 100 milliseconds.”  There are more rapid systems of neural pathways that carry more specific information (precise localization of touch, pressure, vibration, etc.).  The fibers of the swifter system travel the length of the spinal cord, “until they synapse in the medulla oblongata.”  The medulla oblongata is the part of the brain referred to as the myelencephalon. (Note: There is a location in the brain, which is the “house” where all gross/big movement is sensed.  This house is called the “primary motor cortex.” That’s where movement is first sensed. Processing that information happens later and also in the medulla oblongata to help further facilitate and maintain our balance.) The medulla oblongata is specifically associated with the body’s autonomic breathing mechanism (that’s not connected to balance.  Oh wait, yes it is!!!!), but also sits beneath another brain structure the pons.  The pons is associated with maintaining balance and often works with the medulla oblongata to regulate breathing (oh, so they ARE connected!).

This very quick review and basic understanding of what helps us maintain balance will help you to understand other blog

*A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers by Mel Robin, pg. 443.
Thanks to our student Sienna for pointing out the information about the Primary Motor Cortex!

How am I supposed to be breathing?!?!


In our last blog “‘Core’ training…are you doing it wrong???” we talked about intra-abdominal pressure as being necessary to “engage” your “core.” We also discussed the diaphragms two functions, breathing and posture, which are interrelated. In most cases, if you have good posture, your breath will come easily and if you have shitty posture, your breathing will suffer.  This applies to the reverse as well; difficulty breathing will affect the shape of the torso. Try slouching (if you aren’t already), take a deep breath. Now, sit up straight and take a deep breath. Astounding, right?  It should be no surprise then, that the quality with which we breathe will impact the ability to execute activities with good form. So then proper breathing under physical stress (from exercising for instance) should be of the utmost importance. Right? Right.

So… what the heck is proper breathing?  You may have heard many yoga or fitness people talk about “diaphragmatic breathing,” or “belly breathing,” as being the end all, be all magical cure for all of your breathing needs and that you should be breathing that way at all times. I’ve even heard people teach their students to take the deepest breath possible at all times. This would be appropriate if you were preparing to go deep sea diving, perhaps, but certainly not all the time. Your breathing rate and volume should vary to adapt to your activity. For instance, you don’t need to breathe like you are running a marathon when you are watching TV. OK, then… how the heck am I supposed to breathe?!

Well, you are doing it now! That’s right, every single time that you take a breath, you are using your diaphragm! There is NO SUCH THING as non-diaphragmatic breathing (with the exception of certain medical conditions). Ever. It’s just science. Not to be confused with “belly breathing,” a method of breathing in which you allow the abdomen to protrude on the inhale. In yoga, this is often thought to be the best way to breathe, because babies and animals do it, so it MUST be good. Right? Not quite. Not to say it is bad, but it is not appropriate ALL the time. Animals have a different diaphragm function, because of thorax position (think about it.. they are horizontal) and babies have no choice but to breathe into their abdomens because their rib cage has yet to ossify to allow the intercostal muscles to contract. Again, nothing wrong with this kind of breathing, but this is perhaps not the best way to breathe if you were to try to lift something really heavy over your head, run really fast or remain in a bound twist in yoga.

You will better understand if you know how breathing ACTUALLY works. Your lungs are passive structures, which do not do work, but work is done onto them. They are in a direct relationship with the inside of the rib cage because of a fluid, called pleural fluid. This fluid creates a vacuum between the lungs and the rib cage and allows the lungs to slide freely within it. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards and the external intercostals (on an active inhale) move the rib cage up and out to the sides. The volume of the lungs increases to the point that there is less air pressure in the lungs than in the atmosphere and in order to balance this equilibrium (think back to high school science) fresh air comes into the lungs to balance the pressure. The air pressure inside the lungs (after the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) soon becomes greater than the atmosphere and another exchange happens, starting the exhale part of the breath cycle. On a passive exhale, all of these muscles relax, which brings the rib cage back down to its resting position. During an active exhale, other muscles, such as the internal intercostals and abdominal wall contract and the air is pushed out. Ok. Got that? Well, even if you didn’t, the point is that the SHAPE (form, posture, whatever) that your torso takes at any given time is inseparable from the breath! Consequently, if you do not make room for your diaphragm, you will not breathe! Try this: Sit down and squeeze your abdominal wall, lift your pelvic floor and tighten your rib cage as hard as you can and hold it. Now, try to breathe without increasing any part of the volume of your torso. If you were able to, you cheated, because it’s not possible.

Ok fine, so breathing and posture are inseparable. Now what do I do with this information? In our next blog, we will discuss a technique to help you integrate all of this information.

How to Not Kill Yourself Using a Neti Pot or How to Bang Open Your 3rd Eye

So one morning, Melissa, like the good little yogini she is, decided to use her neti pot.  Using the neti pot is one of the 6 cleansing rituals or kriyas described in the complete yoga system (and probably that’s about as far as she’ll go with that.  Go ahead and read what the rest are.  Then you decide if you want go all the way).  Mel loves to neti.  As someone who suffers from allergies and sinus infections it can be a life saver!

In goes the appropriate amount of non-iodized salt.  Believe it or not this can vary from the amount described in the instructions that usually come with the neti pot.  Ph balance can be different from person to person and you are trying to match the body’s salinity.  Having done this plenty of times Mel knows just how much salt to use.  Of course she has boiled water the night before and kept it in a clean mason jar, so she doesn’t have to use tap water and accidentally introduce killer bacteria to her brain…seriously.   Mel even has freshly boiled water on hand to make just the right temperature.  Not too hot, not too cold.  Nasal passages are sensitive, after all.

This one is easy to clean! Go to
This one is easy to clean! Go to

With all parts of this ritual carefully tended to Mel begins the blissful experience of douching her face.  The bliss factor definitely increases after you’ve done it a few time and learn just the right head position so you don’t compromise your ear canals or cause blinding headaches.    But a familiar sensation interrupts the cleanse.  Mel has to sneeze.  No problem.  The sink is right there.  What better place to let the snot fly?

ACHOO! OW, WHAT THE FUCK!?  Yes, this is what happened.  Mel didn’t realize how close she was to the faucet head and the recoil of her sneeze slammed her forehead right into it.  After standing there for a few moments stunned, recovering from the painful surprise she finishes up and  goes to boil the neti pot (it’s metal and should be sterilized after every use).  A few minutes later Mel checks the mirror one last time before leaving the house and is greeted by a giant, red lump on her forehead.

Well, that’s one way to open your third eye.

A warning to neti users:  practice conscious awareness of where you are in space while DOING EVERYTHING.  See, even yoga therapists have klutzy moments.  Don’t let this happen to you!  Pay attention.  Mel has taken that experience as a gentle reminder from the universe to be present in all circumstances.  Thanks universe!  So sweet of you.

Sadie Nardini and Leslie Kaminoff Talk Boosting the Immune

What a refreshing conversation about immune support in this short clip. Now is definitely the season in which everyone wants to stay strong and avoid colds/flu/general ickiness. But it’s also an emotionally and financially stressful (concentrated STRESS) time for many of us. How does that kind of stress challenge the immune system?  Leslie explains to Sadie -and us- that it’s important to know how we handle stress.  Also, can you say, “No!”  Leslie says you’ve gotta say, “no,” in order to say, “yes,” to what’s going on inside of you.  Genius!  Immune support (in this conversation) is about getting smarter about what we allow to be present in our lives and trying to reduce that amount of stress, so that we can better handle what is there to challenge us (which is not always a bad thing).

Enough of us pontificating.  Watch and see!

Bad Yoga #10: I Must Make the Most of My Lung Capacity at All Times

While speaking with clients one of them asked, “Well shouldn’t I be taking advantage of my full lung capacity every time I breathe?”
“Why?,” I (Mel) asked.
“So that the oxygen can move all the way to my toes and fingers.”

For more lung fun facts go to:

Alright, I get where people are coming from with this line of thinking.  It’s easy to enjoy taking big breaths especially when you’ve had a history of breathing difficulties.  Feels like a huge relief! So right after a client has a session there’s often this sense of, “I want to feel this good all the time.”  That’s not a bad idea.  But the problem is people often associate (even after having been educated otherwise) easy/happy breathing, or even “the most efficient” breathing, with BIG breaths.  So let’s talk about lung capacity and when you should and should not be trying to exploit all you’ve got:

Lung capacities are made up 4 clinically defined* lung “volumes”:

  • Tidal Volume– air moved in and out of the lungs during a single respiratory cycle.  (baseline)
  • Expiratory Reserve Volume– extra air that can be exhaled after a typical tidal exhalation (baseline + extra)
  • Inspiratory Reserve Volume – extra air that can be inhaled after a typical tidal inhalation (baseline + extra)
  • Residual volume– amount of air left over even after a forced exhalation (after having expressed Expiratory Reserve Volume

Textbooks tend to state certain numbers with each of these volumes, but obviously those numbers will vary from individual to individual and change depending on what kind of activity we are performing (sleeping vs. walking up stairs vs. doing parkour -which, btw, Kim is all about.  But Mel thinks it’s kinda corny.  Although, in light of the zombie apocalypse threat, she’s changing her mind.  Kim wins this round).

Now, when we talk about lung “capacity” there are 4 clinically defined “capacities,” each a combination of the previously listed volumes:

  • Vital Capacity = T.V. + E.R.V. + I.R.V.  The maximum of a “complete breath.”
  • Total Capacity = All four volumes.  The complete breath, plus residual volume.
  • Inspiratory Capacity = T.V. + I.R.V. Beginning of a complete breath.
  • Functional Residual Capacity = R. V. + E.R.V.  This is the amount of air in the lungs at the end of a “normal” exhalation that will be mixed with a fresh inhalation.

That’s a lot of information and who knew the air that passes in and out of the lungs could be divided in so many ways!? That’s our point.  Even if you wanted to skip all of the above (go ahead and pretend you never read any of that complicated mess) all one needs to know is that the amount of air passing through your lungs changes depending on what you’re doing and that the lungs are structured in such a way as to help you naturally facilitate those necessary changes.  Duh, right?  So how does that apply to the question, “Isn’t it best for me to breathe using my total lung capacity so that my body can get the most oxygen?”

The answer:  No.  It is not necessary to allow in large quantities of air at all times.  In fact, getting into the habit of that could send your body the physiological message that you are in a constant state of intense exertion, in which you need to use disproportionately large amounts of oxygen you don’t normally need when at rest.  It’s like trying to take a nice stroll down the street and breathing in such a way that gets your body thinking that you need to be running from a mugger, running for the train or getting ready for a fight.  Not necessarily the message you want to send.  Calling upon the ability to use the most of your lungs is great if you are a sprinter, but not if you’re in the middle of a yoga class in which the goal is to have focused attention in order to experience less stress (breathe in a lot if you are doing crazy vinyasas, not if you are relaxing into a forward bend).  In fact, it’s seems counter productive to go to a class that demands you breathe “big” or “fully” or always use “belly breath” (don’t get us started on that one).  When do students get to experience the sense of complete freedom and not having to moderate every breath at every moment?  When do students get to move and enjoy a breath that comes easily and without thought?

Also, there’s no need to fear that your lungs are not getting you enough oxygen.  Unless you are dealing with a sleep apnea, asthma, allergies, panic attacks or some other issue that inhibits your lungs’ abilities to function properly,  you are ok.  When a student told Melissa, “So that the oxygen can move all the way to my toes and fingers, “ Melissa answered, “Well, do you wake up in the morning with necrotic fingers and toes?  No.  Then you are ok not being consciously in charge of your breathing and ‘making the most of it’ all the time.” This sarcastic remark was meant to get her client to laugh (which she did) in order to help dispel her fear.  Unnecessary fear can cause it’s own problems in the body.   More importantly, Melissa was able to get her client to understand that her breathing would function for her as necessary without her having to be constantly in charge of it, especially since they had been doing such good breathing work together.  When we sleep we have to be able to trust that our bodies can manage the job for us.  That’s why, for those who suffer with sleep apnea, the disorder can completely disrupt all aspects of life.

The breath is an autonomic process that can be consciously manipulated. This aspect of the breath makes it a unique function of the body.  It’s wonderful to exert specific control over it when we choose to; this control comes with benefits.  But there inevitably comes a time when we must surrender control.  In reality, easy breathing is the physical embodiment of complete surrender.  From the 2nd. Edition of Yoga Anatomy, “It is important to note that in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into the body.  On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure that always surrounds you.”   At some point your lungs, your physical body will have to allow the amount of air you need in without you and maybe even despite you having awareness of it.

How is that working for you?  If you feel like that’s not going so well, get to a professional who can help with that.  If you do wake up with blackened toes and fingers get to an emergency room then set up an appointment to do some yoga with a heavy focus on pranayama.

*Actually there is also “minimal volume,” but that’s not as relevant to this post.

Much of the information about clinical lung volumes has been quoted from Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners; and Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology 2nd. Edition.

Dudes and Yoga

Melissa was recently asked about men and what particular challenges they face in a yoga class.  Here’s some of what she said:

Men are often used to moving—in society and in their bodies—in a way that requires force, strength and extreme muscular effort. It’s been my experience that I have to tell men all the time to stop trying so hard. Yoga is not to be practiced by pushing and muscling through the poses!

No, seriously. Men tend to fall asleep in savasana in my classes more than women. Like, full-on snoring.

This is probably the “most difficult” asana in general. Most people who lie down and fall asleep do so because they are sleep deprived, over-worked, over-stressed or don’t have the mental discipline to meditate. I’m not sure what the reason is for men specifically, but I would suggest simply learning to practice savasana with the explicit intent of not falling asleep.

Clearly, Melissa is making generalizations.  We are very well aware that there are AMAZING men practicing and teaching yoga.  Hopefully, no one is offended or thinks that these statements apply to ALL men.   These are a few challenges that Melissa has seen come up again and again in her classes by which male students get frustrated.  To check out the full article go to the Daily Zeel.

If there are men out there with opinions or questions we would love to hear from them! Leave comments below.

Let Your Organs Support You

Tight shoulders, neck and upper back muscles are a common complaint amongst our clientele.  Often the request during a session is to massage the muscles in the hopes of loosening them.  This can help alleviate some of the tension in the moment and only temporarily.  Whatever deeper issue that underlies the tightness will continue unless changed, like a movement pattern. Often times hours after a massage, the muscles return to the “tight” state unless the underlying issue is addressed. Sometimes the muscles could feel tight in order to protect an unstable joint. Or maybe they are just negotiating gravity from a place of poor posture. This is why the relief is sometimes only temporary. If attempting to address the problem externally then trigger point therapy and fascial release can be more effective than your typical massage.

But an option that is often overlooked for addressing the tight muscles and limited movement of the upper back, neck and shoulders is finding a solution from the inside.   Read More

Your Brain on Scary Emotions and Breath

Let’s explore a familiar situation:

You’re in sukhasana (chair pose), a one-legged balance pose or even an intense-feeling forward bend.  There is sweat dripping,  muscles shaking and a struggle to keep focus. This is usually the part of the class where the yoga teacher calls out, “Remember to breathe!”  Ah, there it is.  The reminder to turn inward, find your center, overcome what feels in that moment overwhelming by remembering to breathe.  So deceptively simple; you do and it works.  By concentrating on your breath your focus is redirected away from bodily sensations associated with the difficulty of executing your current asana.  In doing so, you exert control over how swayed (externally and internally) you are by the physical and mental circumstance.  You succeed, sustain the pose or find calm even if you fall out of it.  Job well done, congratulations!

Typically, at the end of such a class comes savasana (corpse pose).  Now you are directed to lie comfortably (with or without props), but still.  “Follow your breath.  Don’t try to manipulate it. Just observe.”  Oh, that’s WAY different then what you were doing earlier.  Read More

How Do You Practice Off the Mat?

In one of our recent posts we described using the body’s physiology to your advantage during a challenging moment. The easiest way to apply and experience what was described is during a focused physical activity like yoga. But we want to know how you take your practice OFF the mat. Below are moments that could be of service to finding ways to do just that.  Feel free to share your own experiences of conscious awareness, clarity and becoming less reactive due to your yoga or movement practice:

New Yorkers are challenged every day in the underground tunnels and overcrowded buses that make up our beloved transit system. Even if you don’t live in a city with this kind of public transportation you may have experienced the deep-seated frustration of extreme traffic in your daily commuting. Well be grateful for it! This is one of the best situations in which to test how well connected you are to your center, especially via the breath. When you are in a crowd of people how mindful are you of what is going on; does your movement and breathing go on autopilot? Read More