I often tell my students that breath awareness, one of the major benefits of yoga, is the difference between practicing yoga and simply stretching. Becoming aware of your breath and exploring its effect on your body will deepen your practice and strengthen yoga posture.
Pranayama (often referred to as breathing yoga exercises) is an integral part of yoga tradition. This includes specific ways of breathing with a targeted impact on the body and the brain, which might affect everything from body temperature to the chakras. While Pranayama is a powerful practice on its own, aspects of it can be integrated into Asana (physical yoga postures). This improves mindfulness and concentration, resulting in deeper benefits from your practice and enhanced physical abilities.
Here are some of the key ways that breath affects your body and how to use them in your yoga practice.
Ujjayi Breath (powerful breath) is a commonly taught use of breath during asana practice. Ujjayi Breath is the practice of creating a slight constriction in the throat while breathing in and out through the nose to make the breath audible. It sounds like an ocean wave (or a little like Darth Vader).
To begin Ujjayi Breathing, start by making the sounds “haaa” as a whisper through your open mouth. Now close your mouth without changing the position of the rest of your mouth and allow your breath to exit through your nose. Do you hear your breath? That is an Ujjayi exhalation. To inhale, simply maintain the same position of your mouth and breath in through your nose.
There are several benefits to using the Ujjayi breath throughout your asana practice. It immediately increases your concentration and your awareness of the breath. It also gives you a way of gauging your practice. If it is difficult for you to maintain an Ujjayi breath in the yoga posture, your concentration may be wandering, or you may be working into a posture without experiencing its full benefit.
Additionally, this “powerful” breath, increases the intensity of your practice. Traditionally, it is viewed as warming the body and increasing circulation, which increases the benefits of your asana practice.
Spinal (and Skeletal) Position:
Each time we inhale and exhale it changes the space of our body. Inhalations support spinal extension (think backbends or an upward reaching lunge). Exhalations support spinal flexion (think cat pose or child’s pose). This means that the action of your breath while you hold a yoga posture will enhance the posture.
Try this as an experiment. Kneeling on all fours, part your lips slightly and drop your belly down into cow pose (while lifting the head to look up and sliding the shoulders back) with an inhalation. Notice how easy it is to inhale in this movement. Now counter that movement by flexing your spine (arching your back), while drawing the belly in and dropping your head with an exhalation. Once again, you’ll notice that the breath is natural. Try moving between the two postures without consciously pressing the breath in and out.
You’ll notice that breath naturally moves in and out of your body with each movement. Knowing this, you can choose to use inhalations to move deeper into expansive poses, such as lunges, warrior 1, or backbends. Your exhalations can be used to come deeper into poses that require spinal stability and core strength, such as plank pose, warrior 2, and warrior 3.
Strength and Flexibility:
I teach strength and flexibility as two sides of the same coin. These forces complement rather oppose each other when approached with awareness. As discussed above, exhalations tend to increase the core strength of our body.
Try taking a deep breath in that expands your belly. Press the same breath out with your exhalation while drawing your core muscles in towards your spine. Do you notice your exhalation naturally supporting this engagement of your core strength? This results in better support of the skeletal system and joints during the exhalation.
Well-trained weight lifters use this knowledge to support the most difficult portions of their lifts. In yoga, with its combined goals of aligned strength and healthy flexibility, we can use this moment of optimal strength and alignment to move deeper into our yoga posture, finding our maximal (safe) flexibility. This is especially powerful when combined with a deep core engagement to support movement forward into a hip opener or forward fold.
Compression and Expansion:
Breath is an opportunity to bring an internal massage into your yoga practice. Positions such as seated twists and child’s pose, lead to a compression of the abdominal area. When this area is compressed by bringing your thighs into contact with your belly, it feels difficult to take a deep breath.
Intentionally breathing in a way that attempts to expand the compressed area will cause expansion in another area of the body. This can improve circulation in the compressed area, as well as leading to a more integrated awareness of your body.
Try this. Come into child’s pose with whatever leg position feels comfortable to you. Now bring your knees closer to each other so that you begin to feel your thighs create compression on your belly. Notice how you respond with your breath. Do you tend to make it shallower or even hold your breath? Hold the same position and try taking a deeper breath in that expands your abdominal area.
Two things will happen as you do so. In the abdominal area, the compression of your thighs against your body will cause your breath to create a massage of your internal organs. This is beneficial for the digestive system and improving circulation throughout the abdominal area. Additionally, the back of your body also expands. The simple act of breathing while holding compression on the front of your body, brings a beneficial stretch into the back of your body. This tends to feel wonderfully stress relieving, as well as helpful in improving alignment.
Bring breath into your practice to make it come alive.
In yoga tradition, the practice of yoga enhances our prana, or energy. Consciously using the breath in your practice will bring life and energy into your yoga postures. These simple practices of awareness and mind body connection will lead to deeper mind body benefits, as well as improve physical performance of your yoga postures.
Taking time to explore the sensations and reactions of your body will bring the benefits of a deeper and more integrated yoga practice with lasting effects beyond the mat.