As we learn through the practice of pranayama, the breath can have a profound effect on our yoga experience. Breath can be powerful, subtle, nurturing, soft and energizing, sometimes all in the same pose or asana. Understanding and working with the breath can open new doors in yoga, whether you are practicing in class or at home.
The Powerful Breath
Using the breath correctly can bring strength, stamina and power to a yoga pose. The breath does not have to be loud, aggressive or hard to do these things. Instead, make the breath full and expansive and, perhaps, slightly quicker than your usual breath. Make sure to exhale completely, releasing - not pushing - the abdomen toward the back body at the end of the exhalation. A full and consistently flowing breath can reinforce the actions of physically challenging yoga poses.
The Soft Breath
Breath can also bring relaxation and release to your yoga poses. Used carefully, it will allow you to move deeper into poses. In these cases, the breath should be soft and smooth, and while still full and complete, practiced without any hurry. Allow the exhalation to become slightly longer than the inhalation. This often works well in supported yoga asanas such as seated poses or those against a wall. With physical support in place for the body, the breath can be directed toward the actions of releasing.
Other Types of Breath
Through the breath, your mind can also be brought to attention. In both seated and active poses, a slightly quick and sharp breath will wake up the mind. A long, complete, relaxed exhalation will calm and quiet the mind. The combination of these two breaths can bring the mind into a more alert and focused state. Try this first in a seated position at the beginning of your yoga sequence. Then, see if it might be useful in other yoga poses where the body is still, perhaps, tree pose or an inversion.
Cautions and Suggestions
Remember that, generally speaking, alignment and other physical actions are more important than breath for beginning yoga students. This remains true any time you are learning a new pose or a new way to approach a pose. Moving incorrectly or without awareness is more likely to lead to strain or injury than forgetting about the breath. Even when our mind forgets to breathe, the body remembers!
Try some of these approaches to the breath when practicing familiar asanas. Don’t forget about the alignment of the poses, but see if you can add another level of awareness, another dimension, by bringing the breath into play. Don’t force the breath or become assertive with it, but strive to create internal space and allow it to happen, naturally. You may find, after time and practice, that your breath has enhanced and deepened your yoga practice in unexpected ways.