Inside Yoga 35 (29/4/2011)
In TKV Desikachar’s book Heart of Yoga he states that “yoga is as much a practice involving breath as it is involving the body. The quality of our breath is extremely important because it expresses our inner feelings… The breath is the link between the inner and outer body. It is only by bringing body, breath and mind into unison that we realize the true quality of an asana (posture).”
Learning to make this connection between breath and body is an important part of the yoga journey; and its one that takes time and perseverance.
People vary in the ways they breathe and move when starting yoga. Someone with a stiff body will move in a different way to another person who is flexible; and likewise, a relaxed person will move in a different way to someone experiencing high levels of stress.
So the first stage is observing our movements and breathing. And in particular we learn to allow every movement to be led by the breath. Linking breath with movement is the basis for the whole asana practice.
Breathing is what we do to stay alive, it is the one feature of our lives that defines being alive – as without it life would end, of course. Yet, we spend most of it on auto-pilot, not conscious of our breathing. We can develop bad habits with our breathing, for example, stressed short breathing.
I once read that the ancient yogis said that we are born with a finite number of breaths. An allocation for our life, which meant that if we did not cultivate a steady and conscious way of breathing and instead allowed our breath to become short, stressed and uneven, we would run out of our allocation quicker. And thus our lives would be shorter.
Although this was written thousands of years ago without medical statistics at hand this advice is relevant in our modern world. We see our modern lifestyle has caused many people to develop stress-related breathing problems and unhealthy living – for example, smoking – has been shown to shorten lives. So the ancients were not far off the mark.
When we begin yoga it is not so easy to bring awareness to our breathing and stay aware of it, let alone direct it towards a better rhythm of breathing. But it is possible, with time and effort, to correct any bad habits we might have with breathing.
Establishing a link between breath and movement is the most important aspect of asana (posture) practice. In fact, if we do not maintain our awareness of both movement and the breath, the yoga practice becomes mechanical and thereby ceases to be a yoga practice.
How do we learn to breathe?
In yoga teachings it is acknowledged that mastering our breathing is not something that comes straight away. Learning how to put our legs and arms into a posture like trikonasana (triangle) can be easier than getting the breathing right. But we keep on practising.
A useful technique is to focus on how we breathe in each position – observing the inhalation for a period and then the exhalation. Becoming familiar with what we are doing in the present moment is the first stage of developing the breathing.
We then cultivate the steadiness and length of our breath – extending both inhalation and exhalation so that they become longer, while maintaining a steady flow that is comfortable.
So remember… to breathe.