“Practice, and all is coming.” – Pattabhi Jois
What yoga practitioner hasn’t heard this quote a hundred times? Being the hard-tryer that I am, I loved this quote when I first came upon it. It validated my almost obsessive dedication to my yoga practice. I loved seeing progress in my practice, and immersed myself in asana so I could “get better” at doing yoga.
At the time, I assumed that Pattabhi Jois was talking only about asana. I had no real understanding of the connection of the breath to movement, nor did I recognize the importance of breath awareness and breath control.
Pranayama, “the breath practice”, was merely a distraction for me. I would patiently wait for the teacher to finish this part of the class so we could move on to the “real” yoga. Because I spent my entire working life in an office job, sitting hunched over a computer, my chest was closed off and my breathing was relatively shallow. Every time the teacher asked us to do 3-part breathing, it was difficult for me to inhale smoothly and deeply. Besides which, how do you breathe into your belly and your collarbones? My lungs are not located in my belly, nor are they in my collarbones. And kapalabhati breathing!!
How does it help my practice to pant and sniff like a dog for minutes on end?
Fast forward almost two decades to today…
I now cannot fully experience and enjoy my practice unless my breath is smooth and full and my movements are linked to my breathing. How did this transformation happen? Very slowly, and over a long period of time.
In my early vinyasa practice, I found myself holding my breath every time I attempted a challenging pose and not even realizing it until the teacher pointed out to the class that we needed to breathe. I was also in denial that my shallow or complete lack of breathing was a sign that maybe I was over-exerting in the pose.
I first began to feel the importance of the breath when I started taking slower flow classes. The only way I could sustain a pose for a longer time period was to steady my breath and direct it with my undivided attention to the parts of my body that felt restricted or tired. True, the lungs do not extend to my hips or legs, but I found that mentally sending my breath to these body parts during a Warrior II actually helped me find more comfort in the pose. So, occasionally, I would remember to breathe through my discomfort.
And then, I discovered Yin. Everything changed. I loved Yin from my first workshop with Ellen Mosko because I could feel a dramatic shift in my mind and body as I gave into gravity. With Yin, I found I could settle into the pose and find greater range of motion without over-trying. And, to my surprise and consternation, I had no choice but to attend to my breath in a Yin class. I was reminded of the essence of what drew me in during my first yoga class so many years ago – the feeling of possibility without having to strive for it. Eventually, over time, this shift made its way into my yang practice.
I can’t pinpoint the first time I felt the joy of truly incorporating my breath into my vinyasa, but I definitely know when I’m in the zone – my mind is clearer, my transitions are smoother and the struggle eases, even as I focus on making subtle adjustments in my body to create more space.
So what did I specifically rely on to cultivate my breath practice?
Start By Focusing on the Natural Breath – Bringing attention to my breath without changing it is the first step toward acknowledging the importance of the breath and exploring how my body feels in the moment. It’s harder than I first realized to not manipulate the breath and simply let it find its natural rhythm, but before you can control the breath, you first need to be fully aware of it.
Receive the Breath – This is a silent verbal cue that I tell myself. I first heard it from Rodney Yee. When I think about “taking” a breath, it sounds and feels like it has to be an aggressive forceful action – actively lifting the upper body and pulling in more air through the nose. Thinking about it as receiving the breath, however, allows me to relax and let my upper body expand on its own to allow the breath to flow more easily and freely down into my body without exertion. The action is actually grounding and soothing. It’s a subtle yet dramatic difference.
Take Complete Exhales – Exhaling fully is key to deep breathing. The only way to take a full breath is to first allow all the air to release from the body. The body will then sense the need for more air and you’ll naturally begin to draw a complete breath. This is a tip I actually learned from taking swimming lessons. Let it all go to make room for fresh air.
Let The Diaphragm Move – Once I understood where my diaphragm was and how it worked, it helped me to more easily draw my natural breath. The diaphragm is a muscle that sits below the lungs. Gently relaxing the diaphragm will cause it to move upward, putting pressure on the lungs to expel the air out of our bodies. Conversely, the action of allowing the diaphragm to descend back down results in more space in the chest cavity and more room for the lungs to expand and fill. By paying attention to these natural, mostly automatic movements, I can more readily allow the breath to flow freely.
Count Off the Breath – I find when my breathing gets erratic, counting the length of each inhale and exhale helps me to understand what’s happening in my body. I don’t necessarily change my breath to make the inhales and exhales more equal, but I take note; a longer inhale might mean my body needs energy and a longer exhale might mean my body wants to relax more.
Breathe First, Then Move – When I draw breath, it brings oxygen into my cells and signals to my body that it’s safe to move. Plus, I don’t have to think as hard about syncing the breath to movement if I just focus on breathing first before initiating movement.
Allow the Breath to Help You Move – Generally, I find that inhaling is energizing and expands my body. So, I tend to initiate strong lengthening actions or chest openers on an inhale. Exhaling relaxes me, so I tend to fold and release on an exhale. Over time, I find I don’t have to overthink this anymore. The body responds to the breath.
Incorporate Pranayama into the Practice – I’m not a big proponent of long pranayama practices, but once in a while I’ll do a quick breathing exercise to calm myself or to give myself some time and space to work on my breath control and explore my understanding of my natural rhythms. My favorite breath practice is alternate nostril breathing because it requires the greatest concentration but not too much exertion. And it balances the two sides of the body.
Use the Breath as a Barometer – The breath is the best indicator of your state of mind and your physical wellbeing. Ragged or shallow breath is a sure sign of distress in your mind or body. Tapping into my breath and redirecting it when it doesn’t feel right is the first step I take to reboot and get back on track.
My best advice for feeling more connected in your yoga practice?
I know, it’s so easy to say but so hard to do. But if you pay attention, practice, and don’t overthink it, it can be transformative!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She, unfortunately, did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement in 2017, she completed her 200-hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko, and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.
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