If there is one crucial lesson that the practice of yoga or tai chi teaches us, it is how to breathe. Without breath, there is nothing. But for many of us, trying to breathe correctly in yoga class can be more frustrating and baffling exercise than standing in Warrior I posture for five minutes. We take anywhere from 12,000 to 25,000 breaths per day. The variance in number largely depends upon the depth of your breath.
So why we do wrestle so much with learning how to correctly breathe when we are doing it so many times a day? You would think we would be breathing experts by now. But if you have ever sat in lotus posture and had your teacher walk you through a few simple breathing exercises, you understand how illusive our breath still remains to us despite the frequency with which we do it.
Breathing is our most fundamental action as a living being. We haven’t stopped breathing since we came into this world and we won’t stop until we leave it. For most of us, we spend our days without any awareness that we are breathing. Moreover, we have very little sensitivity about the quality of our breath. The depth of our breath, whether it is shallow or deep, is largely dictated by what we are doing and how we are following. The next time you see a police car’s lights behind in your rear view mirror, notice your breath. Or take heed of what happens to the pace of your breathing just as you are about to fall asleep.
Deep breathing, when it is practiced correctly has the ability to improve our health and well being. The kind of deep breathing that we do in yoga class, called Ujjayi breath in the Ashtanga yoga method, should be both relaxing and invigorating. Here are a few things to keep in mind next time you are struggling with “getting” your breath in yoga or when you’ve experienced in a spontaneous stressful situation.
1. Relax! The key to yogic breathing is relaxation. Before you begin, swallow once and do a quick scan of your facial muscles. Unclench your jaws, soften the muscles around your mouth, unfurrow your eyebrows, relax your forehead muscles, drop your shoulders away from your ears and keep a steady gaze with your eyes. As you balance your breath, your breath will then become your compass that allows you to stay grounded and focused as you do your asana practice.
2. Don’t strain. If you find that you are straining with your breath, it is time to back off. Yogic breathing should be focused, but it should not force you to lose your breath. Once you have a continuous and deep breath going, your intention is to maintain the quality of your breath as you move in and out of postures. When you start to lose the fluid rhythm of your breath that is your signal to ease up on your practice.
3. Let go. Deep yogic breathing involves increasing oxygen to your muscles and building internal heat. Both of these factors will enable you to travel into deeper places in your yoga practice. As your breath becomes rhythmic, it will invoke a meditative quality to your practice which is the where your entire yoga practice will come from and will ultimately end in.
And remember: The most important lesson to employ both in and out of the yoga studio is to keep breathing.