Does the Breath Move You?
Our breath pervades all layers of our system and works intrinsically with our physical and mental health.
To link with our breath is to be present with our self.
So how does this translate to your practice on the mat? When a teacher directs you to breathe are you truly able to maintain this connection? Or do you forget about it two postures later? Some Western yoga styles often concentrate on body form over all else. We are concerned with ‘look’ rather than ‘feel’ – a reflection of the world we live in. The ancient yogis referred to physical practice without conscious breath as anga banga – something other than yoga.
So how can the breath become your guide? When you come to your place on the mat, start to observe the breath. It indicates where your mind is placed at that moment.
Is it fast and shallow because you ran up the stairs to get to class? Or perhaps the mind is agitated after a stressful day at work and your breath feels barely present?
Take time to tap into it – listen, acknowledge, accept and then move forward to a new, conscious breath pattern that can carry you through the practice.
I ask students to use the classic ujjayi (throat breath) as their starting point. In his book The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar describes Ujjayi as “what clears the throat and masters the chest area”. It is achieved through slight contraction of the glottis at the back of the throat, narrowing the air passage. The inhale moves through the nostrils, into the throat and down into the body and the reverse occurs on exhale.
I often hear students push this breath – fast and rough as though they are reinforcing the effort of the day they’ve had before the arrived on the mat! This only exerts more energy and deprives the body of active distribution of prana, our life force. The breath is directed away from where it is really required – within. If our yoga practice is about restoring and bringing us back to a balanced body and mind this rough breath will be our enemy.
Ujjayi breath is about subtlety. In a visual context it is like the pouring of honey.
In the Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali (Chapter 2, Sutra 50) Patanjali defines this conscious breath as having two qualities – long (dirgha) and smooth (suksma). According to Patanjali, as capability of the breath expands so too does the capacity of the mind!
So here is the true benefit of our practice. How we are on the mat starts to affect how we are off the mat. When we link with breath we teach ourselves to focus, to stay present, to harness the senses and not be distracted by the pull of the outside world. It is a step towards meditation – the ultimate goal of yoga according to Patanjali.
In our practice we can look at the ujjayi breath as a movement away from all we have been holding onto and forcing through our day. It is a chance to let the body reset, focus, create space. It is a taste of being in control of your breath rather than being controlled by it. This is where yoga (union) begins. I find it can take much practice for a student to work effectively with ujjayi but when the link is finally made their asana moves to a whole new level. A new subtlety and grace becomes obvious – a new awareness of movement. The body is no longer in charge but being guided by a greater force. There is a deeper intention, layered with breath and asana. It is the place where the student is fully in the experience of yoga.
How often do you feel yourself struggling in a pose and holding the breath in an attempt to hold the posture?
A full, conscious breath actually creates the energy required to stay. Try it.
Anatomically, inhale is the expansive aspect of the breath that allows the spine to extend or arch creating the space to move into a backbend or extension. The exhale offers a slight contraction of the spinal column and the opportunity to eliminate breath from the belly space to sink deeper into a forward bend or twist. Once we can work effectively with inhale and exhale we can link with a space between our breath – a new starting point. The slate has been wiped for us to begin again. If we want our asana practice to deepen we can’t deny this link.
Notice during your yoga practice if you are perhaps stuck in a samskara of just moving through the motions. And are those endorphins you’re experiencing from getting ‘a great workout’ detracting from your ability to be truly present with your self? Create empowerment by moving into a deeper practice. Become present with your breath – explore it, understand it. You may start to see the benefits unfold.
Jill Harris has been teaching yoga for 12 years through the lineage of Sri T Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. She lives in Ocean Grove, Victoria and conducts group classes and teacher training programs at KYO Yoga. firstname.lastname@example.org