Summer is here – we should feel relaxed and supple. Yet the frenzy of preparing for vacation, the ‘gotta do this, gotta do that’ vacation, catching up with emails that have lingered in your Inbox for 2 weeks while you were gone, cancel out the mimosas and beach-side lazing. You need YOGA!
Crowding thoughts of deadlines and commitments linger as you hop into your car, and then – “can I beat the clock to the day care before it closes?” and even more nerve-wracking – “will I make it to yoga tonight?” Rushing from home, yoga mat in hand, you arrive just as class begins. Kicking your shoes to the corner, panting, you race to an empty spot, search for the elastic to tie back your hair, and unfurl your mat like a sail of a ship on a windy day – breathless, you plop down.
“Welcome,” says your yoga teacher. “Take a seat, close your eyes, and turn inside to your breath. Release everything now that is blocking you from being here. With every inhale, feel the buoyancy inside. With every exhale, soften your skin. With these breaths, we open to something bigger.”
“WHAT?” you think, still breathing heavily, muscles tense – “What’s bigger? How can I do that?”
In many styles of yoga, class begins with a focus on the breath. Most utilize breath work at the beginning or end of a physical practice while some styles concentrate entirely on the breath during a flowing asana class. Prana is a Sanskrit word that means ‘life force’ – the force that sustains everything from the sun that feeds our Earth to the food that feeds our body. Our connection to Prana is the breath, the link from the outside in. Prana unites your energy to a higher Universal energy. The breath is a thread, and Prana weaves these threads together to form the tapestry of all the threads of you – mind, body, and spirit.
Rushing into class brings with you a scattered and frazzled energy. Beginning a yoga practice with a focus on the breath allows you to slow down, calm your mind, become centered, and refocus your energy toward your practice. The out breath – connected to your sympathetic nervous system – releases anxiety and stress, and reduces muscular tension. You feel calm and supported when you exhale. Breath encourages balanced effort between the mind and the body. The breath integrates every level of your being.
Breathing effectively during a yoga class can be challenging, especially if you are new to yoga – even the seated posture at the start of class can be uncomfortable! Practice deep breathing on your own, then integrate it into your yoga class. Here’s how:
Step 1: Sit comfortably, cross-legged, or lie on the floor. Notice the movements of your natural breath. With a hand on your lower abdomen, feel how your low belly rises and falls with the breath, like waves. Deepen your inhalation to send your breath fully into this space for 5-10 more breaths.
Step 2: Next, place your hand a little above your navel and breathe into the area under your rib cage. Notice how your ribs expand upward into your hand. Send your breath to the side and back of your ribs as well. Keep the breath just in the rib cage for another 5-10 breaths.
Step 3: Place your hand on your chest. Direct your breath just to the space under your collarbone (clavicle) for 5-10 breaths. You’ll feel your collarbone widen and rise.
Step 4: For a complete breath, inhale a small breath first to fill the lower belly (use your diaphragm to pull the breath in deeply), then sip in breath into your rib cage, and finally, fill with a bit more breath under the collarbone. Exhale and release the breath first from the belly, then the rib cage, then the collarbone. Use your diaphragm to squeeze every bit of breath out.
Each part of the breath is independent of the others yet complete and whole as one breath. Breathe in this way 5-10 more times.
Initially, a complete breath feels halting, like it has separate parts. Over time, you can smooth it out so it pulses and ebbs like a wave.
Notice your natural breath. Pause and reflect on what and how you feel. Has the muscular tension faded? Is the tightness in your face and behind your eyes softer? Do you feel more relaxed and focused? Energized?
Mastering the technical aspects of yogic breathing takes patience. The rewards are immense – a yoga practice is complete when the mind is still and unwavering, even through the intensity of the physical practice. Integration on the mat allows an extension of these attributes to all areas in life – work, relationships, parenting. Another bonus – when relaxed and content, you sleep so good at night!