I like to think of the breath as a thread that connects both the body and the mind in any given moment. The quality of your breath has an immediate impact on the way your body feels and on the state of your mind: a short, shallow breath immediately creates tension and anxiety while a slow, deep and smooth breath invites relaxation and ease.
Whatever type of yoga practice you engage in, there should always be some level of focus on breath awareness. In fact, I believe that the breath should really guide your practice, whether is a more active vinyasa or a quiet yin style.
Here are some steps to help you create that breath-centered practice:
1. Set an Intention: What are you trying to accomplish with the breath? With your practice? Here is an example – My intention is to move from this frazzled, stressed-out state to more balance, focus and awareness.
2. Focus Awareness into Your Body: When we breathe, the chest and belly are supposed to expand together and when you breathe out, return back to their original shape. This pattern can be altered because of breathing restrictions or holding patterns. Becoming aware of how your breath moves different parts of the body will help restore this natural pattern.
3. Prepare Your Body: Spend some time opening the back, chest and neck so that you can breathe fully. If you plan on sitting, spend some time opening the hips as well.
4. Play with the Inhale/Exhale: Long deep breaths help to oxygenate the body properly so that all of its systems function at their best. Anyone can benefit from increasing their breathing capacity. Practice lengthening both the breath in and out. Pause and notice how this feels.
4. Pick a Breathing Technique: There are many pranayama techniques to choose from, but two come to mind that are perfect for beginners: Deerga Breath (3 Part Breath) and Ujjayi (Ocean or Victorious Breath). In my 7 Week Free Practice series I provide instruction on the Deerga Breath. The Ujjayi breath is done by creating a gentle contraction in the back of the throat, almost like a smile, on both the inhalation and exhalation. You should hear a very soft ocean like sound (haaaaaaaa).
5. Interweave Your Breath Through Your Practice: A breath theme needs to be simple and consistent. There is no need to work with the breath in every pose, allow free breath in between. For example, when you are in each asana, take 5 breaths where each breath cycle is 10 seconds long (inhale for 4, pause for 1, exhale for 4, pause for 1). In between the poses, be mindful to keep your natural breath deep and flowing.
6. Sigh it Out! Sighing out the exhalation from time to time in your practice is a wonderful way to let go of tension in the body, soften your throat and bring yourself right back into the moment. Play with vocalizing the sigh, feeling how this can deepen your experience.
7. Mindful Review: After your practice, take a few moments to review. What worked in your practice and what didn’t? How would you like to adapt things for next time? A yoga practice is continually evolving and taking some time for reflection provides a profound opportunity for svadhyaya (self-study).
Breathing with awareness is one of the best ways to really feel alive! I’d love to hear about your breath/practice experiences – please share your thoughts below.