The Breath and its Importance in Practice
By Scott Johnson
A regular yoga practice offers us many things: strength; flexibility; a deeper sense of who we are; but also things that are true to us as individuals, that can shape our own lives and how we see our personal worlds.
You see, we are all beautifully unique and each of us has the ability to transform our perspective of the world we live in. But, together as human beings we also share the same ways that we perceive the world and each other. Our senses. Our ability to communicate. Our bodies. Breath.
Smile, breathe and go slowly – Thích Nhất Hạnh
We begin with breathing
More often than not, when we first begin the path of yoga, the last thing we remember is the breath. We forget it’s there. With so much else going on when we are learning to practice we can miss the thing that is the most important.
Yet being aware of the presence of the breath is the actual reason TO practice. It is each breath that ties us to this living present moment, therefore it is focusing your awareness on this breath that actually ties the mind to this present moment too.
Remembering as well that the breath’s very presence is the reason why we are here in the first place. The reason we are alive. When we were born into this world what was the first thing we did? We breathed in.
Try this 90 second breathing practice right now:
This short breath awareness practice demonstrates that we can return our attention to the present moment by allowing ourselves to notice the breath that is here right now. All yoga and mindfulness practices are pointing our attention in this very direction.
When you breathe you move
One aspect of a yoga practice is the merging of the physical with the ever more subtle. The body with the breath. The breath, the mind. The ability to continually engage and align with the awareness of both breath and body at the same time is one of the goals of Ashtanga yoga. This concept is called vinyasa (breath/movement) and is what is developed through the method of Ashtanga yoga.
The thing is, there are so many other things going on when we practice that the thing we can most take for granted continues to get restricted and lost. Yet the biggest deal about yoga asana practice is the eventual ability to cultivate the breath as the focus point of our whole practice. It becomes the rhythm through which the experience of yoga unfolds. And a posture/movement deepens when the breath becomes the focal point.
Making the breath known
So, from those first heady beginnings when we are struggling to balance all the things we are supposed to remember and at the same time breathe; we slowly, over time, begin to soften our bodies, which means our breath begins to make itself known.
As we progress and the practice begins to form a regular pattern in our lives we begin to relax more into what we are doing rather than struggle to find breath. We don’t know this at the beginning, we just feel tight and think there’s so much to remember, but the long term payoff is our ability to breathe fully. We all do it though. From the beginner student, who is learning brand new ways of being challenged, to the advanced, who is opening up to deeper ways of being challenged. In my experience, what aligns the two is the experience of being able to use the breath to meet these challenges.
In our yoga practice we are looking to maintain a soft and steady posture and focus (in Patanjai’s yoga sutra this is explained as Sthira Sukham Asanam). The breath is at the centre of this awareness. If a yoga posture is steady, the breath is steady.
This means one of the goals of practice is the maintenance of a full inhalation and a full exhalation. This is what Guruji used to call ‘free breathing’. Free breathing: the ability to be free in your body and to notice a full breath. So we could say we are practising to find the space to breathe more.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am – Sylvia Plath
Following the path of the breath
So, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga becomes breath/movement yoga. Simply, when we breathe, we move. The breath, then, is laying out a path for our bodies to follow.
Whenever we lift or rise up in a posture we breathe in; and whenever we go downward or let go we breathe out. The inhale and the exhale pave the way for the body to respond. If we use this as the fulcrum of our yoga practice it becomes a much deeper process.
Take one breath at a time
Once the breath is full and deep, and the body is responding, we can then harness the breath to root our practice. The root of our practice is to unite our experience and become aware. We are able to use the energy of the breath to maintain and develop awareness.
In the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga method the practice is strung together on the rhythm of the breath. Sri K Pattabhi Jois likened this to a mala, which is translated in Sanskrit as garland, where “each breath/movement (vinyasa) is a bead to be counted and focused on” (Eddie Stern, Yoga Mala).
So we tie our mind to this breath by counting each breath. This is called the counted vinyasa method. This method keeps the mind, body and breath together and united.
Noticing when there is no breath
It’s also good to be aware of the different parts of the breath and this can really help us to give our practice a different focus. Not only is there an in-breath and an out-breath to notice, but if we really were to unpack breathing we would want to notice the points in between the breaths too. The spaces where the breath meets.
It is these points that it helps to be truly aware of. Is there tension here? Do I feel stuck? Am I forcing breath in and out? To notice the spaces between breaths is to get into an even more subtle awareness of your body and breath moving together. This helps so much with the transitions in our practice.
Remembering to breathe
So, if the breath is the fulcrum of our lives then we are able to use it as a factor that grounds us and transforms us. It is no coincidence that in many of the contemplative traditions around the planet you have the breath as the major focal point of transition from gross to subtle. A simple example is that most of us can probably remember a time when we’ve been in a vulnerable situation and someone told us to ‘take a deep breath’.
I feel our practice is teaching us to remember to breathe. With awareness, wisdom, clarity and skill. Just as in the middle of this busy city there is a place that offers quiet contemplation, support and refuge each day called Stillpoint Yoga London; know that in the middle of your busy life there is a place you can return to every moment that offers its own source of potential stillness. It flows a quiet wind through the veils of our lives and if we harness it, becomes the experience of how we move through our days.
So, if you’re ready to learn to take a deep breath in your own life then I invite you to join us. Either on one of our beginners courses if you’re new to yoga, or at our daily morning Mysore classes if you have experience of Ashtanga yoga.
Ready to join us?
Check out the details of how to join our online and in-person classes and membership