You Wouldn’t Believe These Techniques of Yoga Breathing
Amazing Breathing exercise and Techniques
The Process of Inquiry
The following inquiries are intended to encourage attunement with the breath. They are distinctly different from the exercises so familiar to the Western mind. The word “exercise” usually implies some kind of repetitive activity (often unpleasant) that we will ourselves to do.
Doing an exercise also assumes there is a set result we are trying to achieve, and the foreknowledge of this “correct” result tends to color our perceptions of that which is expected of us.
The purpose of the inquiries is to provide you with a situation in which you can explore and discover new skills for yourself. As you enter an inquiry the most important attitude to bring with you is one of inquisitiveness and open-mindedness. If there is no ideal to the process of perception, then anything you feel or sense is worthy of your observation.
No movement, thought, or impulse is insignificant in open awareness. There is no good or bad perception. This non-discriminatory awareness will allow you to go far beyond the limited perspective that is your lot when your sole concern is to “get it right.”
Surely it was this same process of experimentation that allowed the ancient yogis to discover the vast and creative range of practices handed down to us today. It is only through a recapitulation of this process that we can discover the inner meaning of the practice and go beyond mechanical repetition.
First Inquiry: Letting the Breath Move You
You can do this inquiry in almost any position: lying on your back, side, or belly; sitting or standing; or in any yoga asana or activity. The two positions I have chosen, however, allow you to feel oscillation very clearly. As you begin to sense the nature of the oscillating breath, I encourage you to continue exploring the work in different positions, for each reveals new information.
Stand with your feet hips-width apart. Bend your knees generously and allow your spine to fold forward over your legs (Figs. 4 & 5). Let the head, neck, and the arms drape. If this position is uncomfortable because of the tightness along the back of your legs or in your spine, you can fold forward sitting in a chair with your feet wide apart. In this variation your head will hang between your legs and your arms will drape along the outside of your knees.
Let go of any agenda concerning how far you stretch forward. Then begin to sense and feel your breath entering and leaving your body. Feel the way the breathing expands and condenses the whole body. Notice that there are brief moments in between the expanding and condensing during which the body and the breath are still. These pauses are rather like the pause of the pendulum when it reaches its arc in space before continuing its trajectory to the other side.
From stillness the breath expands and moves you, and as it condenses it moves you, returning back to the ground of stillness before beginning the cycle again. Imagine your bones are like tiny, light boats bobbing up and down on the current of your breathing. As you give yourself over to this current you find that your body becomes married to the breath. A thousand tiny shifts, rotations, openings, and closings are happening throughout the entire body. Let yourself “be breathed.”
Then begin to sense and feel more acutely exactly how you are being moved. Can you feel your spine being alternately lifted and lowered? Can you feel your shoulder blades shifting position? Can you feel your spine changing shape, and if so, how does it change shape when you breathe in and out?
Are your arms a part of this movement, or do they feel cut off from the central current of the breath? Does your head and neck pulse slightly, nodding up and down with the incoming and outgoing breath? Where do you feel your body in co-participation with the breath, and where do you feel cut off from its influence?
Your body’s natural co-participation with the breath happens when you stop controlling with your will and become willing to be moved. Opening your mouth, relaxing your jaw, and taking a few deep sighs as you breathe out through the mouth may help you to release tension and give yourself over to the process.
When you are ready, slowly curl up through your spine, supporting your back by placing your hands on your knees if necessary. As you come up to standing or sitting (if you did the exercise on a chair), take a moment to feel how the breath is continuing to move you.
Second Inquiry: Amplifying the Breath
This inquiry is to help you feel more clearly the marriage between breathing and movement. Begin by sitting comfortably in a chair. Place your hands on your thighs with your palms facing forward; gently stretch the hands so the fingers are softly extended but not tense. Then relax the hands and let the fingers curl inward so your palms form a slight hollow. In this way continue rhythmically to fold and unfold the hands for several minutes. Then begin to observe your breath. Do you notice any relationship between the movement of your hands and when you inhale and exhale?
Now extend this movement so that you open and turn out your arms and then relax and turn your arms inward. Let the movement expand into your chest so that your chest opens as you gently extend the arms and so that it settles and folds inward as you turn the arms inward. Let your entire spine come into the movement so that the whole body opens and closes like a sea anemone.
Observe again how your breath is moving in response to the movement of the body. Let the movement get large and expansive. Feel how the breath changes as the movements grow larger, and then gradually over a period of minutes let the movements become smaller and smaller until you are quiet and still. As you cease the larger physical movements of the body and become quiet, can you still feel the echo of the movement inside you like a light alternately glowing and dimming?
This inquiry is an excellent and simple way to “kick-start” your breathing if it has become shallow or restricted. Even in the most public of places, opening and closing your hands will not draw attention to you. You can utilize it in a variety of forms during asana practice by slowly exaggerating folding and unfolding movements in any part of your body and gradually returning to relative stillness, listening and allowing the echo of the breath to continue.
Working with Ujjayi
The steps toward integration of body, mind, and breath can be compared to the apprenticeship of a sailor. Before a sailor can guide his boat he must know the nature of the wind and water—their characteristics, rhythms, and cycles. Without knowledge of these natural forces the most advanced and expensive boat in the world would be of little use.
Once familiar with wind and water, the sailor can raise his sails and skillfully guide the boat where he wishes to go. No matter how masterful he is, however, he still cannot control the wind and water—he can only harness them.
When you have established a felt sense of your breathing and you are allowing it to move freely, you are ready to move to the next stage of mastery—guiding the breath. Instead of canvas and spinnakers you have the natural opening of your throat and sail-like folds of your vocal cords. Called ujjayi, or the powerful breath, this basic pranayama technique involves a very slight closure of the vocal cords, or glottis, at the base of the throat.
When done sensitively, your breathing will sound like the echo of the ocean inside a seashell—a deep but soft “sssss” on inhalation and “hmmmm” on exhalation. With ujjayi you can guide breath into the body in a fine, even spray that is deeply soothing to both the lungs and nervous system.
The sound of ujjayi gives the mind a more tangible way to adhere to the breath’s movements. With ujjayi you can spread the breath and direct it so that it permeates every cell of the body. All of the principles of moving with the breath still apply, only now you are guiding and refining these movements of the breath for your own benefit.
My experience with ujjayi is that it begins to happen naturally during the practice of asanas, and should never be forced or done so loudly that someone across the room can hear it. If you have a tendency to hold your breath and are only just beginning to feel your body moving in synchrony with your breath, I suggest you leave ujjayi alone.
If you attempt to practice it too soon you will only be overlaying ujjayi upon your pre-existing tension patterns and breath-holding habits. Take the time to explore the previous inquiries until you feel connected to your natural breath.
Third Inquiry: Guiding the Breath
Practice a simple posture that you know already, or if you are new to yoga, try this inquiry in your chair. First, connect with the natural rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation and the movements in your body that correspond to these two phases of the breath.
Then begin to practice ujjayi, feeling how this slight closure of your vocal cords allows you to modulate the volume, quality, and direction of the breath, much like using a nozzle on the end of a garden hose. Notice any changes in how you experience the posture. See the form of the posture in your mind’s eye, and direct the breath so that it is moving in synchrony with the natural lines of the movement.
Then, more specifically, guide the breath into any areas that feel resistant, tight, or dull, letting the spray like quality of ujjayi penetrate each and every cell. At any time in your practice you can let go of ujjayi and return to normal breathing. Take a moment as you complete the posture to notice the effect this breathing practice has had on your state of mind.
The Principle in Practice
- Take time to connect with your breath before you begin a movement and then as you practice the asana go slowly enough so that you don’t lose the connection.
- Whenever you notice yourself holding your breath, exhale completely, blowing the air out through your mouth until the last whisper of air leaves your lungs. Wait for the inhalation to begin spontaneously, and then begin the yoga asana again with the support of your breath.
- Slow down! Roughness, unevenness, or shortness of breath are signs that you are forcing the body to open too quickly or are moving in a way that is creating disharmony.
Choosing the Present
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 full participation in life. By returning over and over again to the essential nature of the breath we can relinquish the fixity of the past and the imagined inevitability of the future, turning back toward the opportunity that awaits us in the next breath.
Thus to attune yourself to your breath is to make a decision—perhaps the most radical decision you have ever made. The second you choose to mind your breath you have decided that this present moment, this very moment, is worthy of your full attention.
The instant you do this you have begun to extricate yourself from the hold of the past and the pull of the future. You are living your life as a today rather than a yesterday or tomorrow. Thus many teachers of the yoga tradition have said that self-awareness attracts the energy of the lower centers and elevates it.
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