Breathing is as simple and automatic as the ocean tides. It's science and physics. There's an action then a reaction. It just works, and it happens continuously, with little effort most of the time. Then why do we focus so much on the breath in yoga?
Through my experience and practice in yoga, I have found the breath to be similar to a double edged sword. It's the key to release, but also the key to binds, complex poses and holding goddess pose for just a few seconds longer. Accessing the breath is essential for growth and development in yoga.
I have a question for you (actually, several).
When do you notice your breath? Perhaps when you're climbing up a seemingly endless stairway, working in the yard, at the gym or hiking a mountainous trail? But have you ever observed your breath as air comes in and recedes out, just sitting still? Have you taken notice as to which part of your body moves the most as you breathe in and out? Is it your chest, your belly, maybe even the shoulders?
Sit. Breathe. Notice what moves.
We often don't pay attention to our breath, because like the heart, it's an automatic function in our body that occurs without an active mindful decision from us to make it so. Again, similar to the heartbeat, the breath is an crucial life force we sometimes take for granted. It's easy enough to forget we're even breathing. When we decide to become better acquainted with it, we see it can be used for a whole lot more than providing oxygen to the brain.
Re-Learning How to Breathe
In yoga and asana practice, one of the first things we learn is how to recognize our breath. It's silly to think that we would need to re-learn how to breathe, but it's true. Think of it as re-learning how to breathe with a more formalized purpose. We have a wonderful organ called the diaphragm, which allows us to choose whether to breathe unconsciously (what we do most of the time, including during sleep) or consciously. When we decide to breathe consciously, or with effort and attention, we open our mind and body to new experiences of restraint and release, building a connective bridge toward inner-focus and a physical and mental awareness that can be accessed on minute levels.
Pranayama essentially means, "energy of the breath", or breathing with intention. When we breathe consciously and with attentive awareness, we are inviting energy into the body through the breath. More specifically, we are creating energy with our breath and giving it space to live in the body.
Why Do This?
Through pranayama practices, we learn to recognize and familiarize ourselves with the basic life-source of just breathing. It's a fundamental we cannot live without. Don't you remember your school teachers hammering into your head, "Learn the basics!" By better understanding the fundamental patterns and rhythms of our breath, we build a stable structure that will support us as we grow upward, toward our true ambitions and potential. Also through this practice, we physically create more space in the lungs to hold air. This will ultimately help us direct the breath to particular parts of the body that may need release or healing. A common position to feel this "directing breath" can be Child's Pose, as we send the breath toward the low back and hips.
Learning to control the breath not only calms the nervous system, but allows us to connect deeper with our internal selves. We all have truths, desires and joys within us, that can easily become suppressed or buried. Our day-to-day focus is so often routinely trained on the outside world, we sometimes forget to look inside. Accessing the breath is a way to redirect our attention inward, and re-balance the pendulum swing.
I recently experienced what felt like an enormous pendulum swing imbalance. As many of you know, I am involved in an intensive 8 month 200-hour yoga teacher training program. Last weekend marked the half-way point, and two of the main topics were pranayama and meditation. We spent six full hours learning, teaching and guiding several different pranayama and meditation techniques. I generally consider myself proportional when it comes to balancing the external and internal parts of my life. I have always been drawn to the physical properties and instinctive tendencies of nature. I spend a lot of free time accessing this through fishing, hiking and camping. I'm also drawn to the internal, the unseen, the "feelings" and mystery of what surrounds the external, inner-light and truth. My impulse for art and writing are ways I tap into internal reflection. Yoga, for me has always been an even blend of the two...an even swing of the pendulum. However, last weekend, I wandered a little too far down the "rabbit hole" of inward immersion. After eight plus hours of meditation lectures and practice, I had hit a critical mass of absorption, got freaked out and self-conscious (vulnerability, anyone?) then frustrated and angry. Long story short, we must learn to recognize when we need pranayama, and when we don't. We should use the breath in our favor to help balance the pendulum of life.
A Short Pranayama Practice:
There is no pressure to do the following short practice, if you don't want to. Perhaps read through it first, and see if it's something you might feel comfortable trying.
First, find a comfortable place where you can sit tall and comfortable. It can be on the floor or in a chair. Either way, make sure your spine is neutral and elongated.
Did you notice a difference in your breath just as you started the practice, and then toward the end?
Accessing the Breath in Yoga
To me, yoga is intentional breath enhanced by movement. We tend to inhale when we extend the body (outward motion and expansion), and exhale when we flex the body (closing in motion). Breathing in this way often helps to enhance our yoga practice, and allows energy to flow freely and fluidly through the body. When you focus on the breath during yoga, you begin to find how it creates physical balance and strength. Sometimes simply inhaling consciously through a difficult pose can bring an extra boost of energy to the asana. Through this type of breath, we can find stability and an deep resource of power and strength that we perhaps were previously not able to reach.
Learning pranayama or conscious breathing doesn't mean you have to do it all the time. It's also not for everyone, and sometimes only helpful in doses. It's just a tool to use, for self-healing and internal focus. It's a tool to help us balance the external and internal or yin and yang of life. Developing a relationship with your breath will only further deepen the connection you have with yourself, while creating positivity in your life and for others around you.
Hello, I'm Julie.
Yoga to inspire preventative health and better quality of life. Bring wisdom, nourishment and a deeper connection to all aspects of your life.