It has been said that, “Yoga postures are different shapes in which to explore the breath.” Indeed. Yoga is all about the breath. One of the first things we learn in yoga class is how to breathe using the whole torso. Many people breathe shallowly, contributing to anxiety and stress among other health risks. When taught to breathe properly, people come away from their first class in a state of bliss. It is quite possibly the first deep, full body breath they’ve experienced in a while.
The saying, “Where the breath goes, the mind will follow” is truth. When we are mindful of the breath, we can learn to control and manipulate the breath to create different states of mind.
In Ashtanga, we move into and out of poses with the breath. The breath is one of three the pillars of Ashtanga, along with a mindful gaze (dristi) and internal locks (bandha). We call it Ujjayi breath – victorious breath. By minding the breath and practicing ujjayi breathing, we enter a state of intense concentration on the present moment. After spending 5 breaths in each pose, we explore the body by following the breath as it moves in the pose. Where is the body open and receptive in each pose? Where are there restrictions and how can we get the breath in those tight spots? An example is Marichyasana C, where we twist to the right and bind the right leg with the left arm. The right side is compressed and the left side is open to receive the breath. And then we do the other side and the right side is infused with freshly-oxygenated blood. The action of moving in and out of poses with the breath acts like an internal massage for the organs, cleansing and oxygenating the tissues.
In every pose, the goal is to breathe as fully and deeply as possible, to create space for the breath, to soften to receive the breath. If you are struggling to breathe in a pose, you’ve likely gone too far into the shape. Back out, find the breath, and only deepen the pose as you can do so and continue to breathe freely.
And finally, the breath is a common focal point for meditation: watching the ebb and flow of the breath as it moves in and out of the body – listening to the breath.
Here’s my favorite breathing instruction from Rodney Yee:
Sit comfortably. Imagine inhaling into the back of the heart and exhaling through the sternum. This method causes us to use the vast back body to receive the inhalation. By exhaling through the sternum, we keep the chest lifted on the exhalation, preventing an habitual slumping forward as we exhale. Obviously, these are just images that help us to create space for the breath. Give it a try. Be patient. You may have to coax the back to be receptive and it will become more flexible with practice.