Yoga and the Breath

Any yoga instructor worth their weight continuously reminds their students about the inhale and the exhale. Any student who listens to the instructor can be heard taking a breath at the reminder. The breath is one tangible way that we can connect to the energy, or prana. When the prana leaves us, this life on earth is done.

In my sessions, I’ve become fond of asking students, in our opening mediation, to connect with the breath, and without manipulation, notice where it is that the breath goes. Front body? Back body? Are the side ribs moving away from the torso? Does the low belly move out as the diaphragm drops down? Is the breath even between both lungs? Beginners will often try too hard to connect with the breath, and thus move away from creating a quiet space. Once they’ve done a little mat practice, then they are more readily able to find where the breath goes, and what is moving with the inhales and exhales.

After the students have tapped in to the breath (and for many of them it is only for one round, and then the mind is off to something more interesting than sitting and breathing!), I ask them to notice the emotional body that showed up on the mat that day. As we move through sessions, I begin to ask them to link the breath to the emotions that they are feeling. If the breath is short and choppy, most likely the mind is similar. Agitation, anxiety, anger, fear, all of which takes us away from the quiet center.

As they follow my invitation to begin to manipulate the breath, by evening it out (same count for the inhale and the exhale), perhaps deepening the breath, or even taking a few audible exhales, I notice an energy shift. I ask them to check back in with the mind and notice if the thoughts have calmed any, if perhaps their driving emotion hasn’t had a few rough edges ‘breathed’ away. And if they don’t notice, I always reassure that that is okay, too. Everyone’s journey down the road of proprioception is different.

Moving the body on the mat will alter the breath. Balasana or a twist can restrict the breath to the front body where the abdomen is given less room to move. After completing several rounds of sun salutations, the breath is quick, and maybe not as deep as in the opening seated meditation. Reminding students to return the breath, an anchor that keeps us rooted in the moment, is always suggested. I sometimes take it a step further and ask them to notice the quality of their breath, and then check in with their thoughts. If the breath is ragged and the student is working past their edge, I would bet that their mind is in turmoil. They have then moved away from the practice of yoga.

There are times that I invite my students to notice their breath throughout the day. If they are feeling tired, to check in with how they are breathing. Shallow? It takes a dedicated practitioner to remember the tools and techniques of yoga when an event occurs. The sooner the student of yoga can realize that they have moved into the ego and have bought into the stories (i.e., lies) of the mind, then the quicker they can bring themselves back to center. I was grateful for this reminder earlier this week. A situation occurred, and I reacted the way most people would. I got angry for an instant, then very hurt. There were tears and all sorts of upset. In speaking with someone who also knows yoga, they mentioned to me, “We’ve been talking for ten minutes and I’ve yet to hear you take a full breath.” Ah. Yes. That is what I was missing. My thoughts were consumed with the event, and the emotions hijacked my breath, and with that, any attempt to use a technique was temporarily out of reach. I would have eventually come back, but her gentle reminder brought the fact that I had forgotten to breathe up front and center.

For the next three days, how my breath was showing up was something I checked in on several times. I spent some time with my pranayama practice before an extended seated meditation. What do you know? The long, deep breaths settled my mind. Viloma gave me the opportunity to enjoy a few moments where the breath was suspended. Kapalabati brought me out of a funk one afternoon. Why is it that one simple anger management tool, “Take a deep breath and count to ten,” is so often suggested? I believe it was Einstein who said, “We cannot solve a problem on the same level that it was created.” If the anger or sadness resides in the shortness of breath, and where the creative problem solving center of the brain is shut down, then how would we ever expect to respond (rather than react) to a particular situation? Deep breaths to a count of ten not only sends oxygen to the brain (which was previous starved and then sent into fight or flight mode) but floods the body with fresh energy. It is from this place, where the breath has leveled, and the thoughts are perhaps more rational, that a solution can be found.

This has been a lesson that I have learned well (and reminded of recently), so the next time I’m faced with a difficult situation, I can take a breath, or two or three or ten, and then respond from a place that is more centered, more quiet, than the irrational ramblings of the threatened ego. I’ve written and recorded other thoughts I’ve had about yoga’s teachings in 25 poems I’ve titled Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation Volume I, of which three poems can be read for free on my web site, or you can order the whole project. Do you have suggestions for how students can use the breath in their practice? Leave a comment to share with others. Namaste.