Monday, June 4, 2012

Understanding Breathing in Yoga

An introduction to Hatha Yoga is an introduction to the breath. First class, first movement and we have to wrap our heads around what was previously unnoticed - the body breathing itself. The body takes a walloping 20,000 plus breaths a day.

Breath Awareness

Lying on the floor, we begin the journey of awareness of the comings and goings of the unseen breath. There it comes traveling through the nostrils and down to the abdomen and back up and out again. This observation can quiet the mind. For some this awareness is absolutely unpleasant, and it could remain in that unsatisfying category for a while.

Beginners become more acquainted with the breath with pretty straightforward instructions like, "Inhaling extend the fingers, exhaling gently close the fingers into a fist". It simply requires paying attention as you lie on the mat. The second movement could be: "Inhaling as you raise your arms overhead and all the way to the floor behind your head, exhaling raise arms and take them back to the floor by the thighs."

Breath as Guide

Then comes a change in the relationship with the breath. It becomes our guide. In some yoga practices we are asked to follow the breath, we have to pay even more attention and trust the process. "Let the breath surround the movement." As students we learn to begin the inhale and then move slightly after; and end the inhale just after the movement. Same principle and practice with the exhalation. In other words, the breath actually surrounds the movement. The mind becomes quiet faster.

Wave of the Breath

If you thought taking a deep breath meant expanding your chest like Superman, somewhere in your yoga journey you learn that is incorrect. You learn that the wave of the inhale rolls in from nostril to chest to abdomen, and then rolls out from abdomen through chest to nostril. And if in that breathing exercise after your posture practice you find your breathing goes the opposite way, there's hope with this corrective breathing practice. Place a large textbook above your navel and lift it on the inhale as you lie. Then lower on the exhale. Try this every day for about 5-10 minutes. It might take a few weeks to see the change.

Movement and the Breath

What's a general guide to coordinating the breath and larger movements? When the chest expands, inhale; for example backbends. When the abdomen contracts, exhale; as in forward bends. And when in doubt, move on the exhale.

The development of our yoga practice is woven into the intimate relationship we experience with the sacred breath.

Heather Greaves is the owner of Body Therapies Yoga Training. She organizes yoga and meditation retreats and workshops in Ontario and Barbados, and has been helping yoga enthusiasts learn to teach yoga in a certified program. For more yoga tips or to sign up for our monthly