You’ve probably noticed that most yoga classes begin with some instructions about your breath. The teacher will either ask you to breathe deeply or lengthen your exhalation, expand your belly or your chest, breathe through your nose or exhale through your mouth. Why is the breath so important? And why would you practice something you do naturally all the time anyway?
Breath practice in yoga is called “pranayama,” which is often translated as “breath control.” But pranayam is control in a very subtle sense; forcing yourself to breath in a certain pattern or to hold your breath can be quite disturbing and that is what you want to avoid. So in breath practice, you should never force yourself to breathe in a way that feels unnatural or against your grain. Richard Freeman, an internationally known Ashtanga Yoga instructor, explains pranayama this way: prana means breath, or life force, and yama means restraint; but the “a” before “yama” in “pranayama” means “without.” Therefore, pranayama means breath without restraint.
What most of us don’t realize, however, is that in our seemingly natural everyday breathing we are actually constrained all over the place. The small kink from sitting at the computer too long, or the chronic holding over the solar plexus from childhood trauma: both of these are examples of constraints on your freedom to breathe that you adapt to so seamlessly that they come to seem natural to you. They are not. Through observation of your current breathing patterns and intelligent, gradual adjustment of parts of the breath, you can release patterns of holding and free your breath.
Adjustment in pranayama is accomplished through observation and invitation. Rather than “making” yourself breathe out or in or hold for an increased or decreased length of time, you set an intention for the desired action. Intention is directed attention, and when you pay attention to something, in this case your breath, you change it, in this case in the direction of your intent. Patience is required as the change happens gradually and incrementally rather than all at once; but this also means it happens more deeply and more permanently than it would if you simply forced it.
Breathing has three conditions and four phases: breath can be in, out or paused. The four phases are inhalation, internal pause, exhalation and external pause. Note that we call it a “pause” and not “holding.” Pranayama is not breath holding. You have a natural if infinitesimal pause between the inhalation and exhalation and inhalation cycle. By placing your attention there you can cultivate this pause and sense into this non-dual condition of stillness.
All breath awareness works with adjusting the length and emphasis of these phases, and sometimes with the muscles used to create the movement of a phase. For instance, you can relax your abdominal wall as you inhale, or your chest wall, or both. Relaxation of the abdominal wall allows the diaphragm to descend most deeply and pressurizes the abdominal cavity, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the relaxation response. However, during yoga poses you are best served by engaging the abdominal wall to support your spine and this emphasizes the breath in the rib cage. Breathing only with the rib, or intercostal, muscles tends to be shallow and fast, so to encourage deeper and slower breathing, many styles of yoga encourage a slight toning of upper throat, called Ujayii breath, to elongate and deepen the breath during practice without compromising your postural support.
Begin every breath awareness practice with simply observing your breath as it flows in the moment. You’ll notice little glitches or skips; don’t make any attempt to change these at first. You’ll notice that simply by paying caring, kind attention to the process of breathing as it is will begin to produce balancing changes without your having to make any effort. Over time, your breath will even out and may even lengthen in certain phases on its own.
By noting these tendencies in your own breath you gain valuable insight into your mind as well. Mind rides breath, so if your breath feels choppy your mind is probably pretty scattered, too. Luckily, as you begin to smooth the flow of your breath, your mind will follow, and you’ll begin to feel more peace. In the next several articles you’ll find specific definitions for breath techniques, their uses and procedures.