(First published 30/08/2008)
In yoga one of the most important keys that will unlock your understanding of this practice is the breath.
In “Hathayoga Pradipika”, a practical treatise on yoga, the author stresses importance of breath by saying that “if the mind is the king of the senses, the master of the mind is the breath”.
When we practice yoga asanas the hard part can be the coordination of both the movement of the body and the breathing. While the yoga student tries to move the body into a yoga posture, if there is a struggle and extra effort required, it is the focus on the breathing that is usually the first to be dropped. This could result in a breathing rhythm that is now shaky, stuttering, shallow, rapid and short, or even stopped for a few seconds.
Mistakes do happen and for a beginner it can be hard to maintain focus on both body and breath at the same time, but the advice is simple, bring your attention back to the breathing as soon as you notice that you have slipped away from that focus. And take heart from the experts who do remark that keeping 100 per cent focus for long periods on breath, body and your mind is a very difficult practice. In fact, it can be hard even in the short term.
To allow for our human weakness, a distracted mind, the advice is more about the effort you put into sharpening your awareness and catching the drift away from the breath awareness as soon as possible. So the moment you realise that your breath is struggling with the yoga posture, or that you have stopped breathing, you immediately bring the breath back to a deep and slow rhythm. And then continue with the exercise.
In the end, you can spend more time “returning to breath awareness” than actually being aware of it, but then, that’s understandable, as this is a “practice”… perfection is perhaps what we seek, and being en route to perfection is a good road to be on, but you do not want to spend all your time thinking about how far away that goal of perfection is.
The subtle and profound teaching of being aware of the present moment is important here. Yoga is not about the future or the past (about how bad you felt you were in yoga or how great you would like to be as a yoga practitioner) it trains you to focus on what is happening right now. And the anchor that can help hold you to the present moment is the breathing.
From the breathing you learn a lot about yourself at that moment, and while in a yoga posture the breathing reveals your relationship with the exercise – is it too difficult? Are you pushing yourself too much? Are you being lazy with the exercise? Are you physically in the room, but mentally in the South Pacific?
When the breath is used effectively and with mindfulness the body will respond more efficiently, and your ability in yoga will improve. If one just pushes the body into the exercises and never trains to use the breath and be aware of it while exercising, that person has not really learnt how to practice yoga – it’s just a mindless body moving about.
Yoga is about mindfulness and awareness, and the breath that sustains you in life is also the one that will carry you along the path of yoga.