Are You Leaving the Breath Out of Yoga
When we first start a yoga practice, the big lesson is to breathe through the nose, in and out. This is quite contrary to the breathing we do if we are at a health club (in through the nose, out through the mouth) or doing most other physical training. And then we learn the victorious breath (Ujjayi) that requires us to not only breathe in and out through the nose, but to also adjust the breath so that it’s like a whisper on the way in and out. One could say you sound like Darth Vader, or the gentle waves of the ocean, feeling a slight constriction in the back of the throat so that the breath is more contained, controlled, and effective.
The Challenge Is to Maintain
Once the Ujjayi is introduced, the challenge is to maintain it, on the inhale as well as the exhale, and throughout the duration of the class. This means to maintain the calm, controlled, even breath whether you are doing something crazy with your body or simply sitting in a cross-legged seated position afterwards.
If we attend classes that play music, the awareness of the breath can fade even more behind the booming of the stereo’s rhythm. The ability to hear or even feel one’s breath becomes a lost part of the practice. And when it’s all over, we leave a class drenched with sweat and totally wiped from the experience because we survived beyond our former limits. And yet it feels so good! So we go back for more.
Yoga Should Give, Not Take
There is a problem, though. If yoga means union (and it does), and if the practice of yoga was initially developed to help us become more in harmony with ourselves through mind, body, and breath (which it was), and we are leaving a class absolutely wiped out, then we are not in harmony.
We may feel better because of the raised endorphins and the sweat, but the reality is we are more fragmented than when we began the class.
In irony, by practicing yoga, we sometimes create the opposite effect than what is intended. Yoga should be giving us life, not taking it away.
“We should be doing our yoga (Asana) to live our lives better, not living our lives to do our yoga (Asana) better.”
– Leslie Bogart, yoga instructor
Notice the Quality of Your Breath
Life Force is translated as Prana in yoga. Not all breathing is Prana, or Life Force. Think about it — when you sit in your car to drive across town, you are breathing, but are you full of life? When you’ve worked behind a desk, inside an office, for an 8-hour day, are you full of life? You have been breathing, otherwise you’d be dead.
But most of us are fatigued after a day of work because we haven’t noticed our own breathing, nor put attention to the quality of the breath. What we do with our breath determines whether our breath is just breath or if it turns into Prana. And often when we take a strong yoga class that requires lots of effort, the focus is on exhaling and grunting to keep up with the class, with barely a moment for a long and quality-filled inhale. No wonder we get tired and can’t do much after a class besides eat and go to bed, or find the need to grab our favorite caffeine dose to get through the rest of the day.
In yoga, breathing matters, and it matters a lot. The breath should be smooth, steady, and balanced on inhale and on exhale. No extra effort is necessary to allow the alchemical process of turning breath into Prana.
The breath can not only help you properly move into a posture but also guide the unfolding of Prana and the release of our greatest potential. We all have amazing potential that, for most of us, lies dormant throughout our lives. Once we get past the desire to have better developed arms or balancing a handstand in the middle of the room, we can let yoga and our breath access that potential and enhance our lives.