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I am often told by people who are new to yoga “I just don’t get the whole breathing thing, I don’t think I’m breathing correctly.” It’s really common to be getting into the practice of yoga, but feeling a little unsure or even frustrated if you feel you are not ‘getting’ one of the main aspects of yoga – the breath.
Matching breath to movement is one of the key differentiators of yoga when compared to other forms of physical exercise. This breath awareness is called ‘pranayama’ in yogi terms. This is an ancient word, and the meaning can be interpreted as ‘breath control’ or ‘breath liberation’ depending on the school of yoga you ascribe to. What we can all agree on however, is that when we breathe ‘correctly’ in yoga and in day to day life, we feel more connected to ourselves and more connected to the present moment. So where to begin? Let’s try an exercise together. Sit with a straight spine and your feet flat on the floor.
As you read these words, draw your shoulders up to your ears. Squeeze the shoulders up. Now drop them. How did that feel? Where did you feel tension? Where did you feel release? Where did you notice your breath, if you noticed it at all?
Now bring your attention to your breath – right now, as you read these words. Pause for a moment. Don’t change your breath, just notice how it feels in your body. Where do you notice it most? Your nose / throat / chest / stomach / somewhere else? Get curious. Is it shallow? Is it deep? Just notice it. Take 10 more breaths with this curious attention on your natural, unchanged breath.
Keep your attention on the place you feel the breath most easily, and start to deepen the breath. Notice what changes as you breathe deeper. Do you feel the breath more easily in the same place, or has it shifted? Do you notice tension anywhere in the body? Can you keep this deep breath as you read the remainder of the article?
Now try matching this deep breath to a movement. As you inhale, slowly squeeze your shoulders up towards your ears. Slowly exhale and release the shoulders back and down. Take 10 more deep, slow breaths with this movement. On every inhale squeeze the shoulders up, on every exhale, release them back and down. Close your eyes as you do this. Slow the breath and movement down as you go.
How did that feel? Where did you feel tension? Where did you feel release? Notice what was different from when you first tried this movement compared to when you matched the breath to the movement.
This simple exercise is yoga – matching mindful breath to movement. When we introduce more complicated movement, many people lose the attention on the breath because they are paying attention to getting the movement right. However, the real transformative power of yoga lies in the breath and the awareness of the breath. Try this out before your next class. Arrive 5 minutes early, set up your mat and try this exercise before class begins. Set the intention to focus more on your breath than on getting the physical posture ‘right’ for the class. See how it changes your practice.
This is how to bring mindfulness into your yoga practice. It often happens organically, the longer you practice, the more comfortable you get in the postures which means you are more able to pay attention to the breath so be patient with yourself. Just for fun,try to pay more attention to your breath than the postures in your next class – just for one class. Then see how you feel after the class. Notice if you can pay attention to your breath for 5 minutes on the way home. Then notice if you can pay attention to your breath while the kettle is boiling when you get home. If your mind wanders, just bring the attention gently back to your breath again when you’ve noticed it has wandered.
For me, this is the real beauty of yoga. Yes, it feels great to be able to balance in crow for the first time. Yes, it feels exhilarating to try a handstand and feel physically stronger. But for me, the yoga I take off the mat and into my life is the breath. This is what keeps me calm when I’m told I need to sort out a family problem, this is what makes me feel safe when I’m anxious, this is what brings me back to the mat every day to practice feeling more connected to myself and my needs. This is the real juicy yoga that I feel privileged to share with others.
Try it out and see if you can practice it wherever you find yourself today. I would love to hear how you get on!