How to Breathe Properly in Asana Practice
Breath is the most important aspect to cultivate in your asana practice, but can be challenging and evasive in the beginning. The first time I attended an Ashtanga class and heard that sound I thought to myself, “how are they doing that?” It was at least a few years later that something inside me finally clicked and I felt like I was finally getting it. But even then, a teacher pointed out I still had some refining to do!
Guruji always said, “This is a breathing practice. Everything else is just stretching!” The breath represents your life force or vitality and should be revered as a gift- the Divine essence of life. It is said that a yogi’s life is measured by the number of breaths he/she takes. If you consider drawing the breath from your life-span account, you want to do so consciously, slowly and live a long-full life! It is the key which opens your body, makes you feel light and strong, and helps you find the balance between effort and ease in your practice. It is also the primary tool to calm your nervous system and ultimately focus your mind.
Note that it is never appropriate to hold your breath in asana practice. Holding the breath, or kumbhaka, is used only in special pranayama practices. So, it is vital that you keep your breath moving, even if your pace is faster or slower than the pace the teacher might be calling. Then, focus on cultivating three qualities in your breath: length, depth, and sound.
To cultivate length (or pace), simply begin to count slowly to yourself 1,2,3,4, as you inhale and again as you exhale, ensuring that you set a rhythmic, even pace so that the inhales match the length of the exhales. Next, cultivate the depth by drawing the breath down into the bottom lobes of the lungs, though you should avoid expanding your belly. Instead, allow the rib cage to expand fully and the diaphragm to drop into the belly while still holding the lower belly muscles (two inches below the navel or uddiyana bandha) slightly taught. If you draw them in too tightly you won’t be able to breathe at all so avoid this! Finally, to cultivate the sound, practice the “Ah Ha” method. Open your mouth and inhale as you whisper “ah,” then exhale with mouth open and whisper “ha.” You should feel your tongue drop down to the front of your throat and a slight contraction at the back of the throat, almost like you’re going to snore. Then close your mouth and try to continue this sound through your nose both on the inhale and the exhale. Keep practicing and over time you’ll maintain this breath throughout your practice from start to finish, like oil pouring from a spout, smooth, even, and without interruption.
Just as the poses themselves, the breath takes time to cultivate. Be patient with yourself and set a pace you can manage to avoid over stimulation or strain. Grunting in class is usually a sign of strain! The qualities present in your breath will translate to the energy in your body so keep it calm and controlled.
Peace, love, and OM.