5 ways to pay attention to your breath

Yoga is not all about the physical poses.  In fact, the purpose of practicing yoga postures, more or less, is to make you feel more comfortable in a seated position, so you can focus on your breathing (pranayama).  Once you can focus on your breathing with minimal distraction from a tight and constricted body, then you can focus on the more subtle sensations of your body-mind experience.

If you never move beyond the practice of physical postures, then your yoga practice will be immature and superficial.  It will merely be an alternative to other forms of physical exertion. It will be imbalanced, contrary to the harmony which yoga practice is meant to induce.

I don’t buy the assertion that Ashtanga Yoga teachers make nowadays that a regular asana practice as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois will combine the benefits of asana, pranayama, and the other limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga path into one practice.  Much less do I believe the assertion that yogis can live on Primary Series alone (that’s another post though).  That is not to say that you cannot focus more intently on your breathing while you are practicing asana; in fact, the purpose of this short post is to encourage you to do just that, in a methodical manner.

But make no mistake about it: if you practice asana, then you should also start a pranayama (breathing exercise) practice.  Fortunately, pranayama practices can be very short (as short as 5 minutes) and separate from your asana practice, so you don’t have to worry about a 2-hour-long practice where you have to cram everything – postures, breathing, and meditation – in one go.  It is generally a good idea to learn pranayama from a qualified professional teacher, and then to set a regular practice schedule as you would for your posture practice.

That being said, here are 5 ways you can become a connoisseur of your breathing:

  1. Slow your inhalation down.  A good example of this is to watch the length of your breath when you move into up-dog compared to when you move into down-dog.  You may notice you rush through up-dog to get to the stillness of down-dog.  Slow down.  Roll into up-dog and stretch the inhalation out.  Savor the lengthening of the front of your body.
  2. Slow your exhalation down.  Especially as you get into the floor postures, you may be pushing your breath out forcefully or without full awareness.  This often happens when you are exerting yourself or having a difficult time in a posture.  Slow it down when you exhale.  Focus on relaxing tension, especially in the face, when you exhale.
  3. Breather deeper than normal.  Before you practice, notice how deeply you breathe.  Then try to breathe twice as deeply as you normally do.  There is no scientific measure on this (although it may be measured in Oms =-)), so it is more of an art than a science.
  4. Make smooth the transition from inhalation to exhalation, and vice versa.  All of us have a tendency to hold our breath, either when we move from inhaling to exhaling, or vice versa.  You may hear this pattern as gasping, humming or straining while in the posture. See if you can slow the breathing down, especially towards the end of each phase of the breath, and to breathe as if you were performing tai chi.  (Note: some postures are more vigorous than others and thus breathing in a controlled movement may be harder than usual.  A good example of this is any sort of drop-back or dynamic movement.  But – just because it is harder doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try!)
  5. Cultivate an awareness of your natural breathing patterns.  Again, not necessarily a technique you can measure, in the same way you would measure the number of pull-ups you can do or how much weight you can curl.  It is more about shifting your awareness to observing the breath as if you were observing the movement of waves on the ocean.  You can see the patterns, you can tell when the ocean is more turbulent sometimes, more relaxed at others.  Look at your breath with the same natural gaze.

Paying attention to your breathing is more of an art than a science, so please keep that in mind while you are playing with these suggestions.  These 5 ways are simply tools to use to study your breathing, and what is beyond the breath.  They are like a series of microscopes.  The purpose of the microscope is to help you see the structure of the cell or the organism.   We would think it comical and unusual to hear a scientist focus solely on the microscope, at the expense of what she is studying with the microscope.

So it is with the breathing.  There is no “right way” to breathe, no correct way to inhale and exhale, no single method or technique.  We all breathe differently.  You may even come up with 5 different techniques or tools to study your breathing.  Share your tools in the comments section below.

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