The Breath of Victory (Pranayama)
Today, let's talk about breath and its importance within your yoga practice and beyond, off your yoga mat. I often say in my yoga classes that your breath is your guide. It informs you if you have pushed your body too hard (it gets shaky) or if you have zoned out and are no longer present in your practice, your body, and the moment (it disappears). Thus, your breath is the key to unlocking your body's potential, but it also serves a greater purpose. In fact, maintaining a steady, rhythmic breath is the most vital element of your yoga practice and towards living a full and present life.
Have you ever noticed the connection between your breathing and the actions you are taking or have taken? Have you ever observed how your breath is connected to and impacts your body, energy, and movement?
If you practice yoga, perhaps you have become skilled at matching your breath to your movement, and the two no longer feel separate but rather one thread that carries you through the fabric of your practice. If you have yet to build a yoga practice with breath awareness, once you do, you will learn that when you use your breath consciously, it becomes this pure, raw energy that sweeps through you like a cleansing wind. (Doesn't that sound nice?) Every inhalation is an invitation for life (prana) to enter your body; every exhalation affects a letting go and a release of gratitude for that life force (prana). As you breathe through your yoga practice, your brain signals that you are safe, calm, and grounded. Furthermore, when you learn through vinyasa to match and mirror your movements with your breath, you find yourself peeling away layers of physical and mental resistance. Your breath sustains you when you come to your edge in a pose and allows you to move into new mental, emotional, and physical frontiers.
The breath we use for asana practice in my yoga classes is called ujjayi (oo-jai-ee). Ujjayi breathing is the thread of breath force that elegantly weaves through the tapestry of our vinyasa practice. It is the access point to the source of serene passion required to intuitively lead yourself through your practice and everyday life. Ujjayi serves as a source of equanimity and ease when the path gets tough. It is a doorway to vitality and creative energy.
The Sanskrit word ujjayi translates to "victory." In yogic principles, victory comes by being committed to something bigger than oneself. So the question becomes: How do you create your practice to be about something bigger than yourself? The answer to that question lies in breath awareness and tuning into the transformative power of your breath.
The Connection Between Your Breath & Your Thoughts
Breath and the absence of thoughts are correlated. By correlated, I mean a specific kind of connection in which breath, thoughts, and emotions are in a dance with one another. As you become conscious of your breath, you notice that it reflects your thoughts, energy, and emotional moods like a mirror. Most of us need a breakthrough in being conscious of our breathing and our understanding of the impact it has on our practice. Unfortunately, most -- if not all -- of us are very poor observers of our breathing.
Has this been your experience? Please let me know in the comments section below.
Most of us do what we do on our yoga mats, and we produce positive results for the most part without really noticing our breathing. So the first step -- the most crucial step -- is to simply notice your breath. Try that right now; pause for a moment and observe your breath.
Observing breath is a tool to cultivate self-awareness. With every mood and emotion, your breathing has a different rhythm. When you are angry or frustrated, watch your breath; you will notice it has a certain quality. When you feel fear, observe how your breath responds. When you feel love, watch how the breath flows. When you are sad, notice the tempo and rhythm of your inhalations and exhalations. When you are calm, happy, or just hanging out in Savasana, clue into your breath and see how it feels and sounds.
Have you noticed that when your body is healthy, you breathe differently than when your body is sick? When you are ill, the breathing is off-center or may alert you that something is wrong in your inner ecosystem. In contrast, when you're in perfect health, you typically forget about your breathing because it flows without friction.
We are typically unaware of our breath, but yoga on and off the mat provides the perfect opportunity to get conscious of it. You get to know your breath patterns and their different qualities through yoga and pranayama. You get to observe that whenever your state of mind changes, your breathing also changes. The reverse is also true: change your breathing, and your state of mind and emotional energy also change. Breath awareness is a tool that has transformative powers; you can literally change your mind and your mood just through breath.
Pranayama is the practice of putting your attention on the breath and intentionally being at play with it. A significant breakthrough awaits those who are at conscious play with their breath. You are training the mind to hone its focus when you bring your awareness to your breath while in a receiving pose (any pose you hold for a breath -- or more-- intentionally). Training yourself to keep your attention on your breath brings forth a meditative energy to the pose and integrates with your body, mind, and being. This cultivated mindfulness on the mat empowers an overall ability to focus during everyday tasks.
In an article published in 2012 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers evaluated people who had no previous exposure to meditation. Some group members were given 3 hours of mindfulness meditation training and were asked to meditate for 10 minutes each day for 16 weeks. Other group members did not meditate at all. Both groups were then given tasks that involved attention to detail. Those group members that were meditators showed more control over executive functions! This study points to the possibility that even small amounts of meditation training can significantly change neural patterns in the brain.
The work for the newer yogi is to consider the breath as fascinating, engaging, and fruitful. Learn to be with your breath in each pose. Observe it, and be at play with controlling the flow of breath into and out of your body. Observe the impact of your breathing on your physical structure and the energetic vibration in your body.
Do that, and you will experience a sense of expansion. By observing your breathing, you will alter its flow; as it transforms, so does your feeling of groundedness and, thus, your entire being.
The word pranayama is often translated to "breath control," but I never liked that definition personally. I've discovered that pranayama is less about breath control and more about the expansion of energy and the flow of vitality that comes through conscious breathing. Prana means the vital energy found in the breath, and ayam means infinite expansion.
If, on the mat, the aim was to control the breath, that would put you and me in the role of "controller of life force," which diminishes what's possible in the vast landscape of pranayama. Pranayama offers a great expansion of your life force. Its gifts come when you become one with the flow of breath and experience it as part of the organic pulsation of your body, your emotions, and your energy. That might sound a bit like new-age fluff, but try it for yourself in the pose and see what happens. Allow your breathing to be a holistic, natural experience, in sync with the ebb and flow of your body's pulse and sensations and your energetic movement, and you'll see what I mean. This is how we break from "doing breathing" to being moved and used by the breath into an experience of total aliveness.
The goal of ujjayi breathing -- the deep, rhythmic inhalation and exhalation used in yoga practice -- is to do so in concert with the whole. Ujjayi brings us fully present and, very often, into harmony with those around us. This is true in an asana pose or life.
Try this the next time you sit with a friend or loved one. Pay attention, and you'll notice: If you're connected, you will likely be breathing together. If you are not connected or there is agitation, you will likely be breathing separately. If you're sitting out in nature, meditating, or just being quiet and enjoying being "out there" (i.e., outside your head) and at ease, you will notice your breathing is in sync with the sounds of nature around you. On the other hand, if you're in nature and lost in your mental commentary, there will be a disconnect from the pulse of nature, and your breathing will reflect that.
In a pose, if you have aligned with your Drishti -- a soft, steady gaze -- and your breathing is deep and free, you will become aware that your physical experience in the pose flows to the same rhythm as your breath. You will notice that when breathing is happening as a holistic phenomenon, there is an absence of resisting and struggling. Instead, you experience a feeling of surrendering, of being powerfully at ease and steady in the zone. In fact, you may feel so much "in the zone" that you will not need to "do breathing" because you are already moving, breathing, and being from the center of the pose. You are in the experience of being whole, complete, and perfect, with nothing lacking or required.
Alternatively, let's say you are resisting, fighting, or struggling in a pose. Or you're bored, counting time until the pose ends. It would be a given, then, that you are breathing separately from the pose. True, you are breathing, but not in rhythm with your body, emotions, and experience. When you're dialed in and connected in the receiving pose, you are breathing from and with your body; this can never happen when you are lost in the narratives and default conversations in your head.
This distinction of in my head vs. in my experience way of breathing is something I've discovered for myself from my as-lived experience on the mat. When you experience this for yourself, you will find that this energetic experience can be transferred and shared with others. In this way, the breath can transform us and our relationship with others.
For example, when I was in labor with my daughter, Isabella, I was blessed to have my best friend's mother (and master Reiki practitioner), Hannelore Moebius, to help me. Sometimes, whenever a powerful contraction would roll through my body, my body and my breath would become frozen. When that happened, I would watch Hannelore's breathing and become connected to her in a way. I would suddenly experience my breathing with full awareness, and my emotional mood would calibrate in tune with her breathing. As a result, I felt deeply grounded in my body and connected to the core of my being. Because of her conscious breath awareness, I, too, became aware of my breath and was able to maintain a sense of groundedness, fearlessness, and strength even amid the most powerful contraction. Her power and breath awareness transferred to me.
Beyond being connected or disconnected to my own breath, or with another's, I've also had similar experiences on a group level. For example, when teaching in a room full of yogis, I've felt what it's like to have my breath connected to every person in the room, all of us unified in a frictionless flow of breath. It flows from "me" to "we." As a teacher, if I am stuck in the confines of my head, not present, and not leading from my body and being, I'll notice that the breathing in the room is compartmentalized to each person and is out of sync. If, however, I am not outside my head and I am instead thoroughly with them, authentically listening to the room, I will organically breathe with them, and they will breathe with me.
Recall from my last blog post that I have been reading Baron Baptist's book, Perfectly Imperfect: The Art and Soul of Yoga Practice. He says that for him, pranayama means "to breathe holistically through your body, as a source of all movement and connection to others." This definition is in contrast to the familiar "control of breath." When we try to control our breath, we restrain it, thus cutting off the reservoir of vitality available to us. In the space of free-breath flow, your life energy expands you on the mat and off.
The Yogis Say...
Love is the essence of our life. I have written this blog with love, and I offer it to you, dear reader, with the hope that the suggestions offered here will become a vital part of your self-healing and continued well-being. ~ Ashley
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