In many ways, the breath is intuitive.
Think about it … would you exhale when reaching for something on a high shelf? How about inhale as you bend to pick something off the floor? Of course not! Both would feel awkward and unnatural.
And yet, there are times in practice we do just that – work against ourselves. Ujjayi breath begins sounding like some form of torture, in some misguided effort to sound like Darth Vader. Or we hold our breath, tensing to execute some posture that, unlike the breath, our life will never depend on. Still other times, we pay no attention to it at all.
But the breath is the foundation of our yoga practice, the thread that connects body and mind. Not to mention, the breath also helps give our movement both a shape and a direction. Like an embedded code, every gesture is scripted with an inhale or an exhale, programming our nervous system to work with our musculature in a way that can both calm and energize. So when body and breath work together, movement flows naturally requiring far less effort.
The following are three important breathing and movement patterns to follow.
1. Follow the Exhale
At the very bottom of the exhale, there lives a magical place – only getting there takes patience and commitment. But those who follow this thread all the way down, will surely be rewarded. For at the exhale’s deepest depth, there is a place where the belly lets go and relaxes into the body, creating almost a cave. Buried in this space are where the bandhas live – but you’ll have to reach them first to wake them.
One of the easiest places to access bandhas is from a forward fold:
- Place two fingers between your belly button and pelvis.
- EXHALE completely and feel your belly to relax in and up, away from your fingers. This is your cave.
- INHALE dynamically, like sucking the breath up into a vacuum. Be careful not to lose your cave!
Perhaps you found your belly tensing as you folded, the muscles pushing against your cave. That’s a pattern too – the pattern of fear. And in this case, the fear of falling. So let yourself become a bit unsteady and be forgiving as you look for balance somewhere else. Remember, like everything else, this takes practice!
2. Lead with the Head
When you fill a container with water, you start at the bottom. And when you empty the container, you start at the top. Breathing can be thought of in much the same way, with your body as the container – your head at the top and your pelvis, the bottom. So when you exhale, imagine pouring out the breath from the top of your head and when you inhale, fill from the pelvis up.
Find this pattern in trikonasana (triangle pose):
- INHALE and step your feet apart and turn the right foot out.
- EXHALE and lead with the head as you fold to pick up your toe. Complete the exhale.
- INHALE dynamically from that bottom place, extending outward and up, with the head and gaze, last.
3. Lift with the Inhale
There is a rhythm to the breath that is every bit as vital as the pattern. And this is almost especially so when it comes to dynamic movements such as jumping forward in a sun salutation or lifting our bodies onto our hands. Yet there’s a tendency to push with our muscles, forgetting it’s that in-breath that helps lift.
Imagine a Yo-Yo … as the energy drops down inside the pelvis with the exhale, it bounces right back up with the inhale. It’s the same rhythm you’ll find in swinging on a swing set or jumping on a trampoline.
Try this in any arm balance:
- EXHALE completely as you curl inward. Remember your cave? Find it!
- INHALE dynamically to spring up. Remember, timing is key! Act too soon and you’ll miss the bounce; hesitate and you’ll lose momentum. But when you DO manage to hit that Yo-Yo rhythm right – I promise, the push into your hands will feel more like a lift. And you won’t just rise – you’ll fly!
So you see, while it’s tempting to remain focused on outward physical alignment and strength alone – yoga is an internal practice. The body may be the playing field, but it’s the breath we’ve come to watch. And why, despite the complexity of shapes and movements Ashtanga yoga in particular is known for, the truth is – as long as you can breathe, you can practice.
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