Okay, I know why we need to breathe, the whole oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange is necessary for us humans to survive on this planet. I learned that long ago. But why so much focus on the breath in a yoga class? The words I say the most in any class from beginners to level two are related to the breath and not to the physical body. “Inhale reach the arms high” or “exhale knee to nose” and even “come back to the breath” are common cues.
Breathing is an involuntary function. We do it all day long without thinking about it. However, unlike other involuntary bodily functions, we can control the breath. During yoga we try to control the breath to be steady and even, so the inhale and exhale are equal and strong. There are many different techniques of breath control, called Pranayama in Sanskrit. The most common one at 3 Bridges is Ujjayi breath, also called victorious breath. In Ujjayi Pranayam, the lips are sealed and the breath passes through the nose. It produces a slight sound by constricting the ‘whisper muscles’ which allow the breath to swirl around the back of the throat. We often equate the sound to that of the ocean, rolling and constant.
But why so much energy and focus on the breath?
Each class at 3 Bridges starts with three breaths together, to let go of anything outside the room, to bring the focus onto the mat and body, and to unify us. After those three breaths we encourage ujjayi to start and continue throughout the practice, through each pose and through transitions into and out of each pose. By maintaining the strong breath and the focus on the breath we keep our mind present. Each inhale and exhale is unique. If we can manage to keep the breath controlled for sixty or seventy five minutes and keep the mind present for that long, we’re on the right track to be present in each moment of our lives. Yoga is not all about being able to balance on your hands, head, or one hand and one foot. It’s about being present enough to experience real life. If the mind runs away to future worries or past regrets, come back to your breath and notice that moment for just what it is.
When we get into a difficult pose, a long hold in Utkatasana (chair pose) or a Navasana (boat pose) that never seems to end, the easiest thing to forget about is the breath. It’s instinct to hold our breath or shorten it. That is the moment when we need the breath most, we need the oxygen. It’s the same thing off the mat. Take notice of your breath in the next stressful situation. Does taking a deep slow breath help you? Does it bring you fully into the moment?
Vinyasa yoga is often translated “to place in a special way”. It’s also the connection of breath and movement. So every time you breathe, no matter what you are doing, do it in that special way.
Our breath is constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, entering and leaving our bodies. Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage our internal organs, oscillate our joints, and alternately tone and release all the muscles in the body. It is a full participation in life. – Donna Farhi