The role of the breath in yoga is at once the most familiar and least understood element of contemporary yoga practice.
Part of the reason for this is that the conversation concerning breathing operates at a number of different levels. Consequently, the language can become a little muddied. To break that down another way, we may employ the breath as a tool in several different respects: to assist mental focus, to offer core support, to aerate a depleted or compromised respiratory system and to develop body mindfulness.
Of course, the breath can (and does) operate on all of these levels at once but it is useful to examine them individually a little first to orientate yourself. A skilful teacher can help you to appreciate these aspects at work in a class, but ultimately the work has to come from you.
Deepening a practice always results from personal experience and requires committed patience… and a fair deal of good humour!
Why is breath so important in yoga?
1) It focuses your mind
Breathing patterns reflect our mental state and vice versa, a fact attested time and again in historic yoga scripture. An important component of yoga training then is to learn to focus on our breath’s flow, quality and timing, helping to shift the distracted mind-state to one full of clarity and steadiness.
The first skill we learn to help with this is the Ujjayi breath. This is essentially a breath which makes a soft whispering or hissing sound as it moves through the throat. To make this sound, open your mouth and breathe out (through the mouth) making a “hah” sound. If you were to close your mouth half way through that out-breath but continue to exhale, the “hah” sound would continue but from behind your closed lips. The sound you hear is the sound of Ujjayi. This same sound is there to help anchor your awareness within your practice.
Many times your concentration will wander so the Ujjayi is there to draw you back. It also acts as a fine tool to help you lengthen and intensify your breath when necessary which we will discuss below.
TRY THIS: For purposes of focus, a good practice is to learn to breathe evenly within a posture using this sound: for example, inhale for 4 seconds, exhale 4 seconds.
2) It builds core control
Ujjayi also affords you a good deal of core support. In short, when we engage the Ujjayi technique, there is a slight narrowing of the throat combined with a simultaneous lift of the pelvic diaphragm and a bracing of the lower abdominal muscles. See for yourself.
Create a fairly intense Ujjayi and you should feel the area around and above your pubic bone start to move in and slightly up. This happens automatically so we do not have to concern ourselves over much with “engaging” the pelvic floor which can present a minefield for beginners.
The combined action of these muscles in Ujjayi then creates a sort of airbag within the cavities of the body which braces and supports the spine and helps to distribute weight effectively. Leslie Kaminoff offers a detailed explanation of this relationship in his book on Yoga Anatomy so if you want to learn more, that is a good place to start.
3) It develops healthy breathing patterns
One of the greatest health benefits of yoga practice is that it teaches students to aerate the lungs more completely and improve the rate of oxygen exchange within the body. It is often misunderstood though as a system which teaches “belly breathing” but any yoga student will know the first time they try to belly breathe in a backbend that it is not appropriate for all postures (quite a small number in fact). yoga training is rather aiming to improve your repertoire of techniques so that you are able to mobilize lower abdomen, ribcage, clavicles and spine when called upon.
There is no one “right” way to breathe in asana. Knowing instinctively how to breathe in a particular position and being able to affect that breath style in a relaxed way, is the key teaching point here.
4) It enhances body mindfulness
One of the pitfalls of Ujjayi is that many students can (and do) become locked in this breathing pattern and can approach each yoga asana with a rather fixed idea about the quality of the breath required. Ujjayi is certainly a powerful tool but at times it may be more appropriate to breathe softly and delicately without Ujjayi engaged (or certainly a very light Ujjayi) to move more deeply into the pose.
The master of this type of practice is Erich Schiffman whose “Moving into Stillness” devotes a whole chapter to the notion of flowing the breath through your posture like wind through an orchestral instrument. This kind of practice requires patience, but also the ability to free any preconceptions about the “correct” way to breathe.
Instead, be guided moment by moment by the body’s innate intuition. Whilst this is challenging, it leads you towards a much deeper understanding of the mind-body relationship and also begins to investigate the role of a controlling “me” overseeing each movement, an investigation which lies at the core of all Yoga practice.
ABOUT PETE CHERRY
A Buddhist Zen teacher, and having taught Power Yoga for over 8 years, Pete has built a reputation as one of London’s most in-demand teachers. Trained with Erich Schiffmann and Fred Busch amongst others, he now teaches on numerous teacher trainings himself, passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge of Yoga, pranayama, meditation, Buddhist and Sanskrit studies with his students. Weaving yoga philosophy and history into his classes and workshops.
Ready to join us on the mat?
Try us now to access free yoga classes. Anytime, anywhere.