Students ask me why the breath is so important in yoga. The simple answer is, if the breath is relaxed, the body will be relaxed. If the breath is strained or tense, the body will be tense, counter to the intent of a yoga practice. When teachers say “and breathe…..” what they are really saying is “deepen, slow down and relax the breath”.
From a physiological standpoint, the breath is something that is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. It happens without our thinking about it. But it is one of the few functions of the body that can also be easily brought under our conscious control. We can choose to deepen, shorten, hold, etc. Because of this ability to control the breath and change our respiratory rate, it is a very useful tool to help change other conditions in the body.
For example, when the effort of our asana practice increases and becomes challenging, the body’s response is often to shorten the breath and tense the muscles. This is a natural human tendency. It is the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response, the function that kicks in to protect us from threats. This is essential for the preservation of the species when we encounter danger. However, the body will often kick into a fight or flight state in non-life-threatening, but stressful situations, such as when we are preparing to speak publicly, or engaged in a competitive sport. The breath shortens, the heart beats faster, maybe the palms become sweaty. The breath also tends to shorten when we are intensely focused on a task such as playing a musical instrument or threading a needle.
During our yoga practice, we can experience some of the same responses described above. The breath shortens and muscles tense in tree pose as we concentrate on balancing on one foot, or in side plank as the muscles start to shake and the intensity builds. The beauty of a yoga practice is that we don’t have to become caught up in that natural response. When tension arises due to intense effort or concentration, we get to step back and notice what is happening. We get to give ourselves permission to relax. Controlling the breath is an incredibly useful tool to help us get to that relaxed place even when we are engaged in intense effort. The simple act of intentionally slowing and deepening the breath will cause a response in the body that will start to relax muscles, quiet the body’s stress responses, and reduce overall tension. This skill can be brought to our daily lives in stressful situations. We can take a step back, deepen the breath and ratchet down the stress response, instead of allowing ourselves to get caught up in the stressful experience.
Let’s talk a little more specifically about how to use the breath during a yoga class. Students will often say to me “this breathing is all well and good, but I can’t follow the teacher’s instruction during sun salutation. I feel ‘out of breath’ when I try to follow his/her cadence.” If you are in a class of say 20 students, remember that each student has a different lung capacity, and a different respiratory rate. The teacher selects one pace to lead the class through a sun salutation, and it simply can’t fit everyone.
Your responsibility as a student is to listen to the messages your body is sending you. If your body tells you that you need to inhale before the teacher instructs you to do so, IT’S OKAY! It’s more important that you keep breathing and honor your body’s own breathing pattern than it is to follow the teacher’s cadence. In this way, you will be connecting your body to your breath.
That said, there is a reason we have a specific breathing pattern associated with sun salutation. The rule of thumb in yoga is that we inhale during backbends and exhale during forward bends. This rule is not hard and fast, and there are exceptions, but it provides a useful guideline for coordinating breath and movement. The reason is simple. It is more difficult to fill the lungs fully when we are in a forward bend, (think, for example, of Uttanasana, a standing forward fold) because the torso is more compressed, and it’s not easy for the diaphragm expand and allow the lungs to fill completely. In fact, the forward bend actually allows the exhalation to be more complete by helping the diaphragm push the air out of the lungs. So there is a balance to be drawn between following the prescribed breathing patterns in sun salutation and following your own. You may even find that over time, with a consistent practice, you will be able to adjust your breathing rhythm to match the teacher’s instruction and still feel comfortable and at ease. It’s all part of the wonderful inquiry that is a yoga practice!
Also if you are unclear about the teacher’s instruction – “am I supposed to be breathing or holding my breath out right now?” – remember that the default action is to KEEP BREATHING. Unless the teacher specifically instructs you to suspend the breath, keep breathing and let the breath be long and full!
Click on the link below, being mindful of the concepts discussed above, as I lead you through two rounds of sun salutation.