Your life begins with this and ends with this...a breath. In yoga, the breath is so vitally important it would be correct to say it is the life of the pose. Holding a pose without the breath causes stagnation and, usually tells me, you have gone far beyond your comfort zone in the pose or you wouldn't have to hold your breath! Let's delve into the breath to discover why it is so important.
Father of yoga Patanjali defines the eight limbs or branches that make up the entire yoga practice. One, only one, of those branches refers to the poses. In fact, in the Yoga Sutras, poses are actually only mentioned in three verses. We will cover the 8 steps over upcoming weeks but one of the steps is pranayama. Prana means life force energy; we all have it as does everything on earth. Yama means a regulation to. So pranayama is a conscious way of taking the natural rhythm to our breath and changing it. There are many different techniques to do so but it is first important to understand why we need to do this. The vast majority of us are not taught how to breathe; it is just something we do. As a result, some of us are chest breathers that take short breaths that virtually ignore the bottom half of our lungs. Others are abdominal breathers who never fully allow the air to lift upward into the chest. Pranayama teaches us to combine the two, if for nothing else, for better health.
Wouldn't you agree that our breath is highly influenced by our emotions? When I am angry, my breath is much different than when I am calm. My breath is different again when I am stressed versus when I am excited. Yogis believe the breath and mind are interdependent; when the breath is deep and clam, so is the mind. If we are able to learn to control our breath on the mat and stay focused on it, it is reasonable to conclude then that I may be able to use my breath control off the mat in times where it would be clearly advantageous to my body, mind and spirit.
Speaking of spirit, the word inspiration can be defined as being in a state of spirit but it is also defined as breathing. I want you to make that connection and remember to see your breath as an inspiration. When we learn to breathe with the entire lung, many fabulous things happen. Let's break down these fabulous things into the realms of physical, mental and spiritual. Physically, when you inhale, your diaphragm moves down and when you exhale, it moves back up into place. The deeper you breathe, the more tugging sensation on the tendons and organs because the diaphragm moves farther. Your body responds by increasing your oxygen flow to your brain and by releasing toxins. When I practice asana, I am more engaged by my breath's mental impact. It is an amazing source of focus. Take chair pose, utkatasana, for example. A deep bend in the knees to liven up the quads and before you know it, your mind is complaining along with your thighs. If I were to ignore my breath and let my thoughts run away with me, I will either fall out of the pose or, more likely, talk myself out of staying in the pose. If I am focused on my deep breath, I am able to endure the challenging poses for a longer period of time. The increased oxygen to the brain from the deeper breath work increases your mental clarity. Spiritually, the breath focus is so calming it enables you to go beyond the mind to a place where your Higher Self exists.
From the Radiance Sutras –" Pour one breath into the other, out breath into the in breath, into the out breath, be there, in the harmony of that fusion where one rhythm turns into the other, awaken into equilibrium. Tending to breath in this way, become capable of experiencing oneness with the self."
Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that most of us breathe from our throats, and that real human beings breathe from their heels. Isn't that a great quote? Try breathing from your feet, from your back, from the back of your neck. Can you engage that sensation?
There are many different techniques of pranayama that can calm the nervous system, lower your heart rate, and offer mental clarity. Or simply, anapatasati, which is being present and watching the breath. Gabrielle Roth writes in the book Sweat your Prayers, "the breath is promiscuous, and if you don't pay it attention it will find another lover."
Alternate nostril breathing creates balance in the ida and pingala nadis, ujjayi is a victory, a mastery, of focus, skull breathing ignites fire, and 3 part breathing teaches you to discern where the breath is and how you can control it. Counting the breath creates awareness. What about whole body breathing? Sometimes, we yoga teachers, say some weird and confusing things. If I tell you to inflate your front body as you breathe, you can understand that easily as you watch or feel the rise and fall of the chest. If I tell you to breathe with your whole body, your first reaction may be to tell me that's not possible! It's like a riddle or a koan...how does the breath move in and out through the entire body at the same to impact the body, mind and spirit?
Sometimes in a vinyasa class I will say I'm slowing things down because the energy in the room has shifted. I could also say that I am slowing things down because the breathing in the room has changed. If students are becoming tired and the breath winded, they have lost their connection of focus with their breath. Remember I started out by saying the life of the pose is the breath? If I am out of breath trying to scurry through sun salutations, it doesn't feel as meaningful to me; so I wonder how can it be for you? I recognize the Western need to whip through surya namaskars and sweat it out, but it is not my need. My need is for my movement to match my breath, not play catch up with it.
"As you inhale, visualize receiving the elements of your life – experiences people, things you are capable of – with gratitude/as you exhale imagine sharing that sense of fulfillment with others."