Your breath should be free, loud, and steady; these are the three elements Pattabhi Jois teaches about breathing. Nancy says that Pattabhi Jois does not use the term ujjayi (the name given to the breath we use during class), ujjayi pranayama is actually an advanced pranayama that includes breath retention and we do not want to hold our breath during the practice of asana.
We do, however, want to pay more attention to our breath; initially the physicality of this practice overwhelms us and takes our energy, leaving us less energy for breathing and bandhas—however after a short time of practice it is important to shift our attention to our breath.
Free breathing is one of the most fundamental aspects of practice. Free breathing means that there is a sense of ease expressed in the breath. This releases tension and frees the circulation of blood and energy in the body, flushing away stagnation, toxins and stiffness.
When we try to “control” our breathing, we often end up restricting our breath. When we restrict the breath it is as if we are sniffing the air in—this gets us very little oxygen for lots of effort, notice how when we sniff, we are pulling the air in using the ineffective accessory breathing muscles instead of our diaphragm. Also when breathing restricted we tend to have shallow breaths that stay in the chest area and we raise our shoulders as we inhale. With free breathing we feel expansion as we inhale (expansion in the ribs and chest area), air flows in our body freely—as if we are bypassing the nose and air is coming directly into our throat. When you inhale through your nose you have two options with the air, you can sniff it up into your sinuses or you can draw it down your throat. Drawing the air down your throat uses your diaphragm and gets you more oxygen for less effort. Keep your throat relaxed and a half smile on your face as you breathe this way for a free breath 🙂
The sound is made by toning the back of the throat—the epiglottis as if you were whispering the sound of ‘haaaaa’ in the throat – a breathy sound like the one made when you fog a mirror with your breath, except you breathing through your nose on both the inhalation and the exhalation instead of your mouth.
While making this sound, close your mouth, inhale and exhale through your nose, and feel the breath rise upward at the back of your throat. Once you understand how to work the throat, keep the throat the same and inhale making the same sound. BE CAREFUL NOT TO CONSTRICT THE THROAT SO MUCH THAT IT IMPOSES A PULLING OR LABORED FEELING ON THE BREATH. As you are working on the action at the throat, pay attention to making a doming effect at the top of the throat (much like when you yawn), so you are constricting the back throat and opening or relaxing the top throat, also a half smile helps to relax the soft palate and keep the feeling of ease in the breath.
The point of making the sound is not the sound itself, and a loud sound is not necessarily a sign of a good breath (although the sound does help us to listen to our breath and keep the mind focused). Its importance lies in the effects of the action at the throat, feeling your breath at the back of your throat activates the diaphragm. Helping us use the diaphragm to breathe instead of the external muscles (chest and intercostals). Also, loud breathing gives more length and texture to the breath and creates a back pressure through the abdominal and thoracic cavities that connects our bandhas to the breath give stabilization to the spine during movements. In short this loud breath help you come together with breathing and bandhas,
A good sound is thus an indication of both good alignment in one’s posture, and good and efficient action in one’s breathing.
Steady breathing means that our inhale and exhales are of the same length and depth, and the transitions between the inhales and exhales are smooth and strain free. Most of us tend to shorten either the inhale or the exhale (generally it is the inhale that is short) so we need to pay extra attention to keep steady breathing throughout the entire breathing cycle. All that is required for this is attention—it is not hard nor does it require any special techniques—just attention! There are more challenging flows in our practice that cause us to have a shorter breath—this is OK, just make sure both the inhale and the exhale are shorter but still even. Where you can keep your breath slow, rhythmic and steady through the easier portions of your practice.
Scientifically deep steady nasal breathing has been proven to calm the nervous system (reducing stress), lower blood pressure and heart rate, and lower levels in the blood of the stress hormone, cortisol, resulting in lower risk of heart disease. Pattabhi Jois says “Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous systems.” (Excerpt from ayri.org -Ashtanga yoga research institute.)
Ashtanga yoga is a breath based asana program—moving and breathing synchronicity is the heart of the practice. When you actually connect your movements with your breath your entire practice becomes a moving meditation (as does your life!). This attention to your breath also pulls your attention off the “grunt work” of asana, meaning you are not thinking ugh! This is hard, I am tight here, sore there, this pose is hard . . . instead you are thinking inhale move up, exhale move down, inhale hop through, exhale catch my foot, inhale head up, exhale head down, inhale long and steady, exhale to match the inhale . . . so all you are doing is inhaling and exhaling, not so difficult, huh?
Vinyasa has become to mean a joining or linking mechanism, when you literally translate the word vinyasa; nyasa means to place and vi means in a special way. Krama has been defined as step, or process. So literally we are placing our step in a special way—being mindful of your step or process. Mindfulness is the heart of yoga. Vinyasa krama does not just refer to the physical movement, but includes a mental component of awareness. You are also approaching your practice with an intention, having an intention helps keep us conscious of our direction.
And then there is the Namarupa magazine with an interview of one of Krishnamacharya’s students, he explains vinyasa as art, is it the art from of yoga practice—it involves aesthetic variations within specified parameters (Namarupa issue no. 6 pg.22), the parameters being steadiness of posture, a calm mind, synchronizing the breath with slow movements of the limbs, and while in the postures, having the mind closely follow the breath.
This is how we make our practice a moving meditation—and eventually our entire life becomes a moving meditation.
So how do we apply this? By pulling away from our monkey mind and paying attention. Each movement you take, begin your free, loud, steady breath and then begin your movement this will yoke your movement to your breath and make your practice become a moving meditation. And after years of practicing this on the mat . . . you can take it off your mat as well!
Breathing while in asana
We have the quality of the breath (free, loud, and steady), we have vinyasa karma (breath and movement synchronicity), and the next element is to examine our breath while holding the state of the asana:
Breathing in forward bending
Breathing in forward bending is a very different experience for those who are tight and those who are not. When forward bending with your torso pressed into your thighs and your hands comfortably on your feet the breath is deep into the back and side ribs without resistance–the front of your body is compressed onto your thighs, as you pull your torso on tight to your legs this spreads your breath throughout your entire body—literally your hamstrings, calves, lower back, and upper extremities all stretch with your inhale—giving new meaning to full body breathing.
If you feel tightness in forward bending your breath is a little more restricted; you are tightly grasping at your feet to stay in the forward bend that is close to your limits—in this scenario the inhale is restricted as it is harder for the diaphragm to press downward, however the exhale is easily released and even assisted by the tightness in body. So this is the reason some of us tend to have shorter more labored inhales and long good sounding exhales.
If you are so tight that you can not press your torso to your thighs in forward bending it is advisable to bend your knees, otherwise your torso is moving with your breath and this position in forward bending is not stable or satisfying.
The fixed and flattened torso to the thighs prevents the breath from lifting and lowering the torso during inhalation and exhalation resulting in a sense of stability and silence while in the pose.
Breathing in backward bending
Breathing in backward bending can either be limited by the breath, or deepened by the breath! It all depends of position of our body (standing, prone, supine), the position of our limbs, and level of flexibility.
When back ward bending prone as in upward dog you use your inhale to increase the back bend. When you are “dangling” off the floor as in this position on your hands and feet the back arches easier with the help of gravity and the inhale makes your spine arch deeper as the diaphragm pushes down and outward on the abdomen ‘contents’ causing the pelvis to tilt anteriorly and the shoulders and upper chest to arch back. This is an excellent backbending stretch even for those who are tight as the breath and position will aid the back bending movement—if you are tight in backbending pay attention to not hold your breath and rush through this back bend! Use your breath to slowly deepen your back bend. However those who are very flexible will have to use their abdominals and bandha support to keep from over-arching and sagging in the pose.
In supine back bending, as in bridge pose or Urdhva Dhanurasana flexibility makes this pose very easy, and tightness—even for someone who is strong—makes the pose very difficult. In someone whose body back bends easily (no tightness in shoulders or hip flexors) inhaling into urdhva Dhanurasana will assist the movement as stated previously the diaphragm will actually aid in the back bending of the spine—however if you have tightness in your shoulders the arm position immobilizes the rib cage and only the bottom attachment of the diaphragm can assist in back bending—instead of the top and bottom of the diaphragm assisting as in prone back bending. In this scenario it may be wise to push up into the back bend on an exhale where you have more strength available to push.
In standing or kneeling back bending the inhalation restricts back bending and the exhalation assists it. Inhaling while standing and arching back increases intra-thoracic pressure make the torso ‘taut’ resisting flexion or extension of the spine, also because the abdominals support us in this position while back bending they become taut as well to keep you from falling on your head! Inhaling and holding your breath to drop back keeps the tautness in the torso thereby, either consciously or sub-consciously, adding more stability to the spine—however this makes you drop back with a “thud”. Ideally exhaling while dropping back allows your spine to arch and your hands to land smoothly.
Spinal Twisting and Breathing Issues!
Twisting and breathing is the most challenging in the asana world! Twisting the torso constricts abdominal breathing because it makes the entire lower torso taut and prevents its expansion and it also limits the flaring of the lower ribs—another area we use to bring in air, and with twisting into our leg as we do in the Marichyasana series it constricts the upper abdomen where we would naturally send the breath if the lower abdomen was restricted—the twist in the thorax even limits the ability to lift the chest and breathe into the chest area!! So where does this leave us?? This frequently causes a slowing of the inhalation and short bursts of exhalation—these adjustments in breathing can not be helped, the twisting postures demand them. They can only be watched and minimized.
One tip that has helped me (a tight person in twisting) has been to breathe into the exposed side of the rib cage, for example when twisting to the right in Marichyasana C the right rib cage becomes exposed—see if you can breathe into that area specifically—and vice versa on the left. I have found this to expand my breath into certain areas otherwise unreachable and to teach me I can move beyond the physical constraints with some mental awareness.
Breathing while Inverted
Half inversions such as down dog and standing forward bends aid the exhale, the weight of the abdominal organs against the underside of the diaphragm causes you to exhale more completely and correctly.
Inversions actually prevent chest and backward breathing, the muscles that are responsible to breathe incorrectly are busy supporting the inversion! And therefore unable to help us breathe incorrectly!
Abdominal and diaphragmatic breathing are best when inverted, at the end of the exhalation the abdominal organs are pushed superiorly (toward the floor) by gravity, this lengthens the muscular fibers of the diaphragm nearly to their maximum. This means that the inhalation that follows will be deep and satisfying.
The inhale will be working the diaphragm harder to push the organs inferiorly (toward the ceiling) as it draws air into the lungs, and even though it is working against the force of gravity, this is the easiest way you can inhale. It’s also extra exercise; it strengthens the diaphragm, and creates the purest form of abdomino-diaphragmatic breathing.
Upside down, the diaphragm stays in a state of eccentric contraction throughout exhalation to restrain the abdominal organs from a free fall toward the head instead of relaxing as the diaphragm can do in upright exhalations. In inversions the diaphragm is in a state contraction during both inhalation and exhalation; it acts from a mildly stretched position at the end of the exhale; and is exercised more than usual during inhalation because it has to push the abdominal organs toward the ceiling in addition to drawing air into the lungs. Even students with the worst breathing habits in upright postures will have to use their diaphragm for respiration in the headstand.
Breathing In Rest Pose
This is the ideal time to teach the relaxed breath, a.k.a. belly breath. When lying supine gravity assists the exhalation requiring minimal effort from supporting muscles to exhale. Although those of us used to yogic breathing may wish to resist the exhale to some degree by eccentrically controlling the exhale with the diaphragm—this is really not necessary when relaxing. Allow the exhale to “whoosh” out with gravity and relax!
Lie supine with your hands on your belly. Inhale, relax and allow your abdomen to protrude (feel your hands move outward/upward), do not push outward with the abdomen; allow the diaphragm to solely inhale. Exhale, relax and allow the belly to fall in. Breathe into your hands and feel them move with the belly breath.
It is best to practice this during an “ideal” situation (low dis-stress). During a stressful time you will be able to recall this breath to help you relieve your stress level.
Just a final note: the belly breath in rest pose is good for stress relief; however you do not want to stay there all day long as it can leave you feeling lethargic. The breath you want for most of your day is the diaphragmatic breath—breathing into your rib cage area with control and bandhas. This breath is energizing and requires the support of the abdominal muscles (bandhas). This encourages correct posture, spinal support and gives us a feeling of lightness and energy in our movements.
And most importantly about your breath? You can take it with you wherever you go 😉