The first thing I always tell my students when they first start doing Yoga is about the importance of the breath, which is done through the nose, in and out. This is opposite to what we do if we are at the gym or doing other physical training (in through the nose, out through the mouth). And then I teach the Ujjayi breath, which not only involves breathing in and out through the nose, but also involves adjusting it, so that it’s like a whisper on the way in and out. This is achieved by creating a constriction at the back of the throat, enabling the breath to be more controlled and effective. This also creates heat in the body which helps to release toxins.
The big challenge is to maintain the breath throughout the practice
Of course the challenge is to maintain the Ujjayi on the inhale and exhale throughout the entire class. To achieve this you need to maintain the calm, controlled and even breath whether you are doing a challenging pose or just seated on a cross-legged position. It is very important to always be focused on the breath and this is the basic foundation of Yoga.
However, this simple basic foundation is often lost since most of us is focused on keeping up with the class, on the postures and on which part of the body goes where.
It gets even easier to lose the awareness of the breath, if the class has music. I personally like to include music in the classes as it helps to relax and get into the spirit but it also becomes easier to lose the ability to hear or even feel our breath. This is why it is important that the teacher constantly reminds the student about the breath. But even when we don’t breathe properly, we still leave the the class soaked in sweat and completely wiped from the experience but happy that we survived the experience. And yet it feels good and this is why we go back for more!
Yoga should give energy, not take
The thing is, the Yoga practice was developed to help us become in harmony with ourselves through mind, body and breath, but if we are leaving a class absolutely drained, then we are not in harmony. We may feel better because of the sweat and the raised endorphins, but the truth is that we are more fragmented than before starting the class.
And when our energy is drained after a strong class we wash out the Life Force (Prana) within us. With an exhausted body all we want to do is sit on the sofa to recover. And that way, we can sometimes create the opposite effect of the one intended. Yoga should be giving us life, not taking it away!
“We should be doing our Yoga (Asana) to live our lives better,
not living our lives to do our Yoga (Asana) better.”
– Leslie Bogart, Yoga instructor
And yet this a mistake we see very often! It is easy to lose the focus and purpose of Yoga and get lost in the postures (Asanas), competing against others in the class. That is not the point of a Yoga class. As Patanjali reminds in The Yoga Sutras, Yoga is non-competitive and the goal is to release the ego in order to ultimately achieve Samadhi or enlightenment.
Notice the quality of your breath
Not all breathing is the same. Life Force is translated as Prana in Yoga. Not all breathing is Prana, or Life Force. When you sit in a car driving in the traffic, you are breathing, but are you full of life? When you sit at a desk the whole day inside an office, are you full of life? But you have been breathing, otherwise you would be dead.
Most of us are exhausted after a day of work because we haven’t noticed our breathing nor put attention to the quality of the breath. The way we breathe determines whether our breath is just breath or if it turns into Prana (Life Force). And what happens is that when we take a strong Yoga class that requires a lot of physical effort, we focus on the exhaling and grunting to keep up with the class and without focusing on long inhales. It is not surprising that we get tired and all we want after the class is eat and go to bed, or top up on caffeine to get through the rest of the day.
In Yoga, breathing does matter! It should be smooth, steady, and balanced on the inhale and on the exhale.