People often ask what they should be doing with the breath in the yoga postures. Mostly, I tell them not to worry about how to breathe, but to make sure that they are breathing. When we begin practicing asana, there is a huge learning curve, to focus on the way you breathe can over-ride what is needed in the actions of the body.
That said, however, it is essential to breathe. Oftentimes, we hold the breath because we want to be in control of a situation. Including asana. Say you are in Triangle Pose and you are focusing on all the instruction because you are a good person and you want to do the pose correctly, in fact you’d like it to be the best pose ever and then the instructor says, Breathe and you realize you’ve been holding your breath. This is quite common. So to recognize you’re holding the breath, helps you free up the breath and bring vitality into your posture.
The yogic practice of pranayama is the study of the breath. Often performed in reclined or sitting positions it asks you to expand the breath or blast the breath or even make the sound of a buzzing bee. In Iyengar yoga, pranayama is usually practiced separately from asana.
I carry a lot of tension in my diaphragm. After all these years of practicing yoga, I was quite shocked to discover that my solar plexus was loaded with tension. A variety of fears and anxieties caused me to tighten there (like, say, fear of death). Faced with that realization, I understood how important it was to soften the abdomen and that to release tension I need to do some conscious breath-work.
In classes and workshops, I’d done some pranayama. Lying down, I could appreciate the work, but sitting, I created more tension, anxious to ‘get it right’. (Which is funny, isn’t it?)
A friend of mine passed on Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book. If you have a set of lungs and a functioning body, you should read this book. Beautifully written, Farhi outlines the different breathing patterns most of us adopt over a lifetime -- shallow, reverse, chest, frozen. Most of us have lost the connection to what she calls the Essential breath. A pattern of freed up breath we knew when we were young children.
What I particularly like about Farhi’s approach is her suggestion to ‘un-learn’ habits of breathing. Our tendency is to want to ‘fix’ by adding to, rather than subtracting from, the patterns that already exist.
If you’ve never really explored the breath, or even if you’ve done advanced pranayama, lie on the floor with your knees bent, let your knees fall together and place your hands on your abdomen. Let your eyes close. Relax your face and bring your awareness to your breath. Don’t feel you have to do anything -- making the breath bigger or better -- just allow. Let your breath arise and fall. Rise and fall.
Where in your body do you feel the arising of the breath? Where does it return? What about the space between inhalation and exhalation? The hardest thing is to keep judgement and labeling at bay. With breath awareness, let yourself inquire and be curious without needing to achieve anything.
Farhi offers many insights into the anatomy of breath -- making it quite accessible and poetic. She also outlines asanas that help to free the breath, giving more space to the chest and loosen up the diaphragm.
Imagine if we all spent fifteen minutes with our breath everyday? We might be a happier people. A more relaxed folk, trusting of the wider world.
I leave you with a quote from Robert Henri:
A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not
need to adopt new and startling methods.