Yoga teachers never stop banging on about the “Breath”. But when you first get hooked on yoga it’s usually for the physical hit: it’s all about the asanas- the postures- and the invigorating energy you get from doing them. The “airy fairy breathing stuff” is often bunged in the back of draw labelled “Worry About it Later,”along with meditation and all that “chakra business”.
“I’m busy getting stretchy here,” we think behind the slightly strained yoga stare, “Of course I’ll breathe so I don’t go purple and pass-out, but beyond that, do I really need to be worrying about something I do all day, everyday without ever giving it much thought at all?”
Just try lifting your arms up to the sky holding your breath.
Yeah, you just stuck your arms in the air.
Now sweep them up while taking a deep inhale into your lungs. Feel the difference? Movement with breath is yoga, without the breath it’s just moving(!)
Breath of Champions
Notice how your breath is when you are nervous, agitated or angry- it’s short, frantic, irregular. When you are calm and relaxed or even asleep, it is long and slow and measured. We use a deep breath to calm us down, settle nerves, prepare for a big performance. Olympians on the blocks use it, rockstars about to walk on stage use it, martial artists in a confrontation use it. And so the serious yoga practitioner uses it too. With a calm and focussed mind as the end-goal, the physical asanas exercise the body and the regulation of the breath will bring you to that place of stillness in the mind.
“Vinyasa” literally means, “to place in a special way” and it refers explicitly to the action of linking breath with postures in a special order and flow. All vinyasa-based yoga from Ashtanga to Jivamukti to Rocket has the breath as integral to every movement.
Broadly speaking, the breath is drawn in with every opening/upward motion and exhaled with every folding/downward motion. The breath never stops; it IS the flow. When you begin to take flight, progressing to jumping through, taking inversions and handstands, you will find that, without a strong breath (accompanied by your bandhas) you can’t do any of these things with the grace and control required to make them anything more than hopping around like a gymnastic bunny.
But it’s not just any old breath that carries the flow. It’s Ujjayi breath, the “victorious” breath. Darth Vader had it down. With a little more work on his intention, he really could have achieved great things on the mat. You still can.
So here’s how you do it:
First contract the back of the throat and exhale like you are trying to mist-up a window in front of you. Making a “Haaaaa” sound, practice breathing on your hand so you can feel the heat of the breath. Now do the same again but this time close your mouth half way through the “haaa” exhale, making an “mmm “ with your lips and hear how the breath sounds like the ocean rubbing the back of the throat. Continue inhaling through the nose and exhaling with lips tightly shut, trying to keep the ocean sound on both the IN and OUT.
Fake yawn technique- start breathing as above. On an inhale, make yourself yawn, but keep the mouth closed and try to stifle that yawn as you exhale. Hear how this really opens the passage from your throat to your ears and makes the Ujjayi super-powerful. This is the real sound of Darth Vader. If you can practice keeping this going, you will notice how much power, heat and energy it brings to your practice. The problem at first is to not keep actually yawning once it sets you off, but once you get past this you will be on your way to mastering the tricks that many experienced Ashtangis spent years developing and mastering. It also guarantees you the full-on “yoga face,” essential to the serious yogi. Whenever you lose the breath (as you will when the mind wonders and your focus drifts to other things in the practice) just try to bring it back, mindfully until it becomes an automatic thing. Like breathing. But with the power of the Galactic Empire up your nose.
A strong Ujjayi breath will fire up your energy and give you more proper internal heat than any Bikram could ever drop on you. This heat works into the fascia of your muscles, creating a warmth, not just on the surface but deep down. The body will actively produce sweat from this heat within rather than simply reacting to the outside heat in the room. Proper sweat.
The rhythm of the constant breath also gives the timing to your vinyasa flow and in time becomes the focus of your practice rather than something that sits on top. All the energy you produce originates with the breath.
Use Your Tools.
I was certainly from the western physical-led school of “asanas first, all the other stuff comes after,” until I came to fully understand that you’re not even doing all the simple postures properly, let alone all the crazy advanced stuff, if you’re not using the breath to get you there. Until you do a full practice with your breath as the focus, you will never know how much you are missing out on in yoga. As such, it is considered to be one of the five essential tools of Ashtanga*. Every good workman brings the right tools to the job. You can bang a nail in with your head, but if you’ve got a hammer use it.
(*Ujjayi, Bandhas, Intention, Drishti and Vinyasa)