“Inhale, pause, Exhale, pay attention to the flow of your breath……” – In a yoga class these should be the most spoken words by the teacher – And yet I’m often hearing that some ‘yoga teachers’ don’t emphasise the breath or even teach breathing techniques these days!
The most important part of our yoga practice is to build an intimate relationship with the quality of our own breath, which in turn builds an intimate relationship with ourselves, this is the basis for healing on every level.
Your body loves its breath! When we truly pay attention to our breath, our breath starts to become more expansive and rhythmic. We feel stronger and more alert, but at the same time, calmer and more relaxed. Deep internal breath work invites softness, vulnerability, openness, trust, euphoria, empowerment as well as a sense of ease so that we can flow with the ups and downs of our lives with greater mindfulness, composure and intelligence.
The very first thing that I tell students to do when they come to class is to sit or lie down, close their eyes, turn inwards from their day and pay attention to the quality of their breath.
As soon as we actually become more present and focus on the current of our breath, it starts to regulate and take on its own unique biorhythm. Yogic breathing over time and with practice becomes a delicate, effortless dance, that involves actively moving your breath while passively receiving its flow. We are not trying to overpower, master or manipulate the breath (which I quite often witness with beginners). A practiced yogi instead witnesses, listens, observes, invites freedom, spaciousness and allows the breath to breathe their body, then their practice becomes one that involves effortless effort.
One of the primary goals of yoga is to calm the mind while energizing the body, to do this, the breath becomes our guide and support, when we flow with our breath, our practice becomes a smooth, fluent moving meditation.
When focusing on the breath during our physical asana practice, the control of the breath shifts from the brain stem (medulla oblongata) to the cerebral cortex (evolved part of the brain) due to us being aware of the breath. It’s in that moment, when we are aware, that the magic starts to happen. The mind will become quieter and a deeper state of consciousness arises, emotional stress and random thoughts are less likely to occur. .
“To breathe well is simply to move the body in exact synchronicity with the breath. The body movement is the breath movement” – Mark Whitwell
I teach breath-inspired classes no matter what the style of yoga I’m teaching. We always place our focus on the steady flow of our breath, I encourage students to inquire and observe at all times. Our breath has the power to guide and ignite literally every single subtle pulsation or movement of our body/mind. Even when we hold a pose for a long time, for instance in a yin class. I still encourage students to pay attention to the flow of their breath, this allows for the pose to explore awareness, stability and steadiness with the inhale and yet also to delve in to release and freedom with the exhale. Subtle breath movement also facilitates a deepening and expansiveness of the breath. Consequently, the body, breath and mind are felt to be part of a single flowing movement. This creates life current – otherwise known as prana. Then as the prana, begins to flow more freely throughout our body, it clears emotional and physical blockages, thus freeing both the body and mind from tension. This is the ‘feel good’ effect that we experience after a yoga practice because the body responds by feeling absolutely elated and yet at the same time peaceful. This is the power of synchronising breath with movement, this is yoga.
According to the yoga tradition, prana not only rules over the five senses, but also over the whole body. It is prana that allows us to experience life more fully. It’s said that if a part of the body is not functioning well, it is likely to be deficient in prana. Prana is the energy that rides on the breath. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the breath itself, but we are often breathing, while still lacking life force. It’s what we do with our breath that either increases or decreases our prana.
Most of us do not “breathe into” our entire body, sometimes our breath can be shallow or erratic, often there is a shortness to our breath, this can be due to our posture. However, there is a breath associated with every emotional state. anger and anxiety are often associated with short, shallow, rapid breaths. Sadness, depression and hopelessness are often associated with long exhalations or sighs. Happiness, joy and love are often associated with deep, rhythmic diaphragmatic breaths. The way that we breathe ultimately informs our mood state at any given time.
When we practice yoga with full awareness on the flow of our breath we dial into our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS conserves energy, lowers stress and lifts our mood. Therefore, keeping a connection to breath will prevent us from over-exertion and nourishes our nervous system. Maintaining a steady, even breath reminds us to slow down and set a tempo that suits us. Next time you’re practicing try to let the breath lead the movement, allow your breath to set the timing of your movement rather than the other way around. Use each pose as an opportunity to breathe deeply. Let the shape of the pose be a secondary experience to the depth of the breath. Each one of us has an individual unique pulse, when we can tune in and flow with this pulse, our practice becomes a slow elegant dance and you’ll feel simply wonderful when you get to the long relaxation at the end of the class.
The breath is the thread that ties the conscious and subconscious together. By tuning in to the breath you have a window into the deepest layers of the mind.
Yoga means union of the mind, body and breath, therefore only awareness of breath and synchronising breath with movement is yoga. The way that we breathe has an intimate relationship to the overall movement of prana (life energy) throughout our entire body. the breath and mind are so connected, awareness and mindfulness of breathing can lead to insight into the nature of the mind. Insight into the nature of the mind leads eventually to freedom from suffering.
So people, please, please make sure that you go to a yoga teacher that emphasises the breath – all of the time – otherwise it’s not yoga and you’ll never understand the true meaning of yoga. When you place emphasis on the inner experience of the breath, there will be no limit to how deeply your practice can go.
“To the ancient masters, a powerful physical practice was not merely a form of exercise to increase flexibility or fitness. It was a spiritual way of life based on the intuitive understanding that everything is arising from one nurturing source. It is direct embrace of that power. The key to the power of their practices was and continues to be the breath.” – The Promise – Mark Whitwell.
Love your breath 😊
Love B xx