It’s All About the Breath
The breath is one of my favorite topics. Because it was so difficult for me to understand for a long time, let alone grasp the concept of something that seems so natural. What I’ve come to realize in all my years of practice and study is that without breath there’s not really any yoga happening. Since you cannot see it or even feel it every time you inhale and exhale, the breath gets forgotten about. It’s a very important aspect of yoga that I find tends to get overlooked because we’re too busy trying to nail a posture or contort ourselves into some ridiculous shape! It’s when you actually focus your mind here during all the physical stuff and ride it like a wave that the yoga begins to make sense.
Before I get down to why the breath is so important, let me ask you this – how often do you actually pay attention to your breath? Do you observe the quality, depth, rhythm, existence or b etter yet, the non-existent act of breathing? You might think, “why would I put my attention on all those things if breathing is normal and it happens automatically?” I mean it’s crazy, r ight?! We all breathe throughout the day, so why would you need instruction on how to breathe, especially in a yoga practice?!
We live our lives in between two breaths… an inhale when we are born into this world and an exhale when we leave. So much of our day and time is spent in an unconscious state sleepwalking. Stepping onto our mats gives us the opportunity to slow down and check in. To be quite honest, our patterns on the mat are deep reflections of how we move through life off the mat. The breath is what brings us to the present moment. It is the core of the Ashtanga system. I mean, it’s just as important to the practice as the heart is to the human body! Sound a little like life or death? Ha! It’s not that serious, but how you utilize it does have a huge impact on your overall well-being.
If you practice Ashtanga you know how intense it can get at times. It almost seems somewhat rigid, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Yes, the practice is physically demanding, but it’s also energetically uplifting and calming! During the early years of practice I used to push so hard through everything, huffing and puffing to the point of straining the breath. This only led to a downward spiral of mental blocks, injuries, emotional frustration and linear thinking about how the practice “should be.” Resetting to zero made me do some serious introspection. It was when I was able to put my focus on the breath, and nothing else but the breath, that my practice shifted entirely.
Involuntarily for the most part, it isn’t until we hold our breath or put focus on controlling it that breathing becomes a voluntary action. This awareness was the key component that I was missing the whole time. You see, the softness that we invite into our bodies when we are folding, holding, twisting, balancing, inverting, and transitioning into and out of asanas comes from this place of conscious breathing.
It is the feminine aspect of the Ashtanga practice, the pranic (energetic) force that keeps us moving throughout the day. In a nutshell, the breath is the essence of living. Yes, it takes some deep internal focus to maintain a steady, even breath throughout your entire practice. Think about this, we can control the mind through the body, but we cannot control the mind through the mind. Hmmmm??? We operate through senses. Whatever we touch, feel, smell, taste, hear, and see sends a message to the brain. This is how the mind/body conversations begin.
Look at it this way, if you approach a difficult yoga posture like Marichyasana D with all technique and no breath, you’re going to fight with yourself the whole time. More than likely your body is going to tell your brain, “I don’t like this because I’m uncomfortable,” red sirens start going off, smoke is coming out the top of your head… so what do you think your brain says to your body?? It says “get the fuck out now!” It’s because you’re on the outside trying to look in! If you are uncomfortable, the brain will create all kinds of chatter! The sympathetic nervous system will take over, the breath is lost, the body locks up… game over.
On the flip side, approaching the posture with a calm, steady breath gives the body an opportunity to relax. It’s in this place where the yoga is happening. When you let go of the effort of trying so hard the mind naturally calms down, allowing you to work from the inside out. Equanimity and balanced energy is what we are striving for here, not burnout or frustration. I’m telling you this because I see it everyday. It all comes back to the breath and how you utilize it!
So the next time you step on the mat, try to center yourself with a simple breathing exercise before the first move. Do a few rounds of inhales and exhales but with a count of 3, then 4, then 5. Softly draw the navel in to still the action of the lower abdomen and send the breath into the chest, ribs and back. Pay attention to where the sticky spots are. Look for the extra spaces that you’re not utilizing and invite movement there with your breath. Take your time to really feel those spaces expand. Return back to the 3 count with the same depth as the 5 count. Let breath be the focal point of your practice. The mind will have nowhere to go but in.