In yoga we understand that breath is life. Through the practice of mastering your breath you can master your life. Thus we have a whole limb of yoga devoted to breath practice: pranayama. In my article on the diaphragm I discussed the diaphragm as the primary muscle involved in respiration, thus in an effort to master our breath and our lives we must begin to explore the diaphragm and the breath.
I once had a student that was trying to learn yoga, so I went over the basics with her starting with sun salutations. Step 1, stand in tadasana. Step 2, inhale and bring your arms over your head. Step 3, exhale as you bend forward. We spent a long time working the first 3 steps because she was unable to distinguish between breathing in and breathing out. She took short, choppy breaths and would exhale instead of inhale and vice versa. As one might expect, her yoga practice and her life were both in disarray and she also suffered from some emotional problems.
The Yoga Tune Up® practice is about learning to organize your body and your practice so that you can understand how the breath and the body all work together. After some frustrating sessions working on sun salutations, I decided we needed to focus on breathing without moving first because she was layering poor movements on top of poor breath and getting poor results. Bringing it down to the floor and working the breath allowed her to focus her concentration on just breathing and get tuned in. As the duration, depth and quality of her breathing improved, so did the rest of her practice as well as her emotional state.
If you’re feeling restless and need to calm down, try doing Belly Breaths with a Bolster (show below and also on the 10 Minute Quick Fix Stress Relief video). Take a few minutes to unwind after a hard day or get yourself focused before moving on to something more challenging.
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Thanks for your post. As a teacher of hatha yoga, I give cues of which breath to use for the movement. Students seem to connect with “in-breath” and “out-breath”.
Very much agree on the importance of breath in yoga practice. The opportunity to experience how breath can affect our nervous system is a great tool for students which can assist them on or off the mat. I like teaching the difference between more upregulating breath such as clavical breathing as opposed to more downregulating breaths such as abodominal breathing. I also find it helpful to start with some basic breath-pose combinations such as bridge lifts with abdominal – thorasic breath.
I have been practising the YTU tubular core breath. I just have to repeat this enough that it becomes standard for me before going into poses and actually, many daily activities. It is such great protection for our spine.
So true, breath is our life.It effects everything we do and is some much a part of who we are. It is calming and centers us. I have bought myself breathing shallowly and am trying very hard to rectify that.
I love to do this breathing technique when I’m feeling nervous. Not only does this help calm my breath, which in turn calms my mind, but full contact with the floor further grounds me. Thanks for sharing your experience with your student. I have one student in mind who can use a similar approach.
Sounds like the approach you took with your student was very grounding for her and for your work together. It’s a nice example of flexibility in teaching (no pun intended!) and how trusting our instincts as teachers to let go of class plans or expectations when they are not working and to venture into unknown territory or simply come home to the basic life force of the BREATH can be so effective.
When people talk to me about my yoga practice, they are always startled when the first thing I tell them is that it is about the BREATH. Those who do not practice, assume it is about contorting the body into odd shapes, flexibility being the main goal and focus. I like to keep it simple and highlight that taking the time from our busy days to breathe and then, later, to link this breath with movement is the foundation of the practice. Though your story of this student being unable to link breath with movement and being so unaware of her breath seems unreal, I was not the least surprised. I maintain that everyone should have a yoga practice to re-learn how to breath. Something so simple and so fundamental, yet so many people have it “wrong” and it is literally killing them..
I struggle with matching breath with movement in many vinyasa “flow”-style classes, as the pace is often too fast for me to keep up. teachers should be mindful that if they are asking their students to take deep breaths and exhale completely (as indeed they should !) they must set the pace to match breath with movement. this will encourage new practitioners to extend their breath, moving away from shallow chest breathing.
great article keith! i always, before ytu tt, encourage students to practice ujjayi pranayama and always wondered if ujjayi as a cure all for all yoga asana practice. after a week with jill and ytu tt, i now have several options to teach and so far the students are breathe-happy. thank you for your assists in soho this year!
Connecting with your own breath is so important. When i work with voice patients who need to find and use their diaphragm and belly breath, I have them lay on the floor as well. They feel inhibited at first, but then it eventually clicks for them. And i agree, there’s a lot of emotion that gets tangled up in shallow breathiing.
Hey Keith, again, just poking around on the blog to fine-tune my understanding of the diaphragm. I’ve had the same experience with teaching movement on-top of poor breath. It just ain’t happening. Nice about going prone, all the muscles of the thoracoabdominal cavity (some of which are tethered to the diaphragm) can shut down. Simple and brilliant.
Thank you Keith, i noticed at our first Restorative class for the fall session many students had their breathing habits were all over the place. So now I start them off focusing only on their breathing, with diff techniques each class, some may grumble a bit as we are not in fun relaxing restorative poses but if just one student can walk out of my class with awareness of their ‘breath’ I know I done my work.
So true! When the breath is in disarray, so is life. It took me ages to learn how to tie breath to movement and I couldn’t figure out why it was so challenging. What I did know is that when it happened, my practice seemed almost magical. My life was disorganized, I was stressed out and unhappy in my job and I found myself in a near constant state of fight or flight. One day I showed up at a studio because I thought there was a power yoga class, but I’d looked at the wrong day and it was a breath and meditation class. I almost walked out because I wanted to sweat, but the woman at the desk talked me into staying and it was the best thing I’d done for myself in a long time.
Thanks a lot Keith! Your words struck a cord with me. The student you had that could not focus on her breathe while doing movements sounded a lot like me when I began practicing yoga. It is CRUCIAL to understand the breathe first, and work through the poses according to the inhales and exhales. Now that I’ve become aware of my breathes, I feel like my asanas improved dramatically. It is very important to lay the foundations of yoga down with your students before you move on to anything. Breathing is the KEY to life. I love how you made sure she understood the first 3 sun salutations before you moved on to anything else. Thanks again!
What a great idea to bring your student down to the floor and focus on breathing. I currently have a student in mind that could definitely benefit from some of that. It’s easy to try to give your students what they think they want and need, but it’s difficult to stop and bring them to a place within the practice that they may not understand or have resistance to at first. The breath is essential in yoga – without it we aren’t even doing yoga. Yoga tune up training has definitely brought life back into the pranayama practice for me by making it new and exciting again. I can’t wait to share some of this breath work with my students to deepen their practice, or help them start their practice from a beautiful place of integrity!
Abdominal breathing exercises literaly saved my husband’s life! His COPD (CHRONIC OBSTRUCTIVE PULMINARY DISORDER) was so bad and finally his doctor told him to do deep breathing 5 times a day. After 10 days, his breathing noticeably improved, and after 6 weeks he is breathing well enough to enjoy his golf and get outdoors again.
Yes, it is the breath of life. Breathing is the most vital component to our entire being every single second of every single day. Without the oxygen entering our bodies we cannot move on. Breathing in is like carrying all the wonderful groceries into your body and breathing out is like taking out the trash. However, the way we breath fundamentally changes the way we move and feel… and so many people do not breath to maximize their health and wellbeing. Jill’s stress relief video definitely sheds light on the importance of diaphragmatic breathing and how to properly do it.
How true! This happened with one of my students and I found that we needed to STOP! and just learn how to breathe. She got so much out of it that now her body relaxes instead of tensing when she is asked to move. In addition to the overall awareness gained from breathing, she is able to watch her breath when she is at work or on the move- how beautiful!
Through the practice of mastering your breath you can master your life-so true!!!
Yoga breathing is perhaps the easiest way to promote health and wellness. Practice any time, anywhere, and eventually it will become a natural part of your life, taking in the maximum amount of oxygen you can to renew your mind and become a master of your life!
Breath is so important to restore our mental health after anything stressful. Stress can take over my body and cause me to get sick and lethargic. I have always tired to focus on my breath during class and linking inhales with the correct asanas and moving into the next pose with exhales, but there are some poses that cause me to hold my breath. Usually twisting and some forward bending poses will do this to me.
I totally agree with Sylvia A and Lindsey E. When I started taking classes years ago I really struggled with matching my breath to the movements, and even now with much more experience under my belt it’s still sometimes challenging. The awareness of breath, in and of itself, however, is so profound. Most people go through their day barely breathing. It reminds me of a Mary Oliver quote that one of my favorite yoga teachers shared with her class one morning “Listen – are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” As a yoga teacher hopeful, I appreciate that a large part of my job will be reminding my students that breath IS life.
In class I am very conscious of cueing the breath but am not always sure if my students fully understand the importance. Starting on the mat is a great way to make them more aware. I think I will begin more of my classes in this manner.
The short video demonstrating breathing during the bridge lift really accentuates not only the breathing but also the proper alignment of the body for this posture. The narrator refers to placing the bones of the spinal column on the mate, which is more correct than telling students to place each vertebrae by vertabrae on the mate. You can feel the spinal bones more than the vertebrae between each bone.
As a massage therapist, the breath is so important to the quality of my work… taking belly breaths consciously not only makes work easier, but it allows me to connect with the breath of my client and help also calm and slow their breathing. This in turn encourages healing both ways.
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I also have had students who needed more awareness of how the body effectively moves while breathing. Some students extend the stomach out on the inhale and draw it in on the inhale. When I teach Jill’s “belly breaths” with a bolster they are quite surprised about the belly rising on the inhale and falling on the exhale. But they are intrigued and with practice they like it!
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Keith, you’re right on with the “breath”…when I first started Yoga, it was so new to me, breathing through my nose and slowing the pace or increasing the pace, consciously that is….As a basketball player most of my life, I trained so that I could keep my breathing calm and collected, but that was it. My father spoke to me at times about breathing through my noise as sprinters do, but it was in one ear and out the other.
I never truly saw how significant the breath is in all facets of our lives. i.e. emotions, stress, the mental and physical. I just learned about three different forms of breathing tonight and I have to say, if I knew the methods and techniques behind breathing, more specifically just tuning into my breath, I would have been a better player and athlete as an adolescent. But such is the Yoga way…be in the present, not the past or the morrow.
Sylvia, you are correct, with the significane of the breath…. well said!
When I started practicing yoga, I noticed my breathes and movements were not always in synch; but as I deepened my practice of both pranyama and asanas I realized that the only way to deepen my poses were to focus on my breath. Lengthening with each inhale and moving deeper into the posture with each exhale. It not only helped me get a better stretch, but also allowed me to calm my mind. By focusing on my breath I could stay in a pose with more ease and take a more meditative approach. I have also noticed that this has trickled into my life off the mat, like when I am on a crowded subway, instead of getting angry or frustrated by the people around me, I focus on controlling my breath and my mind & heart soften.
As a trained singer of 16 years, I’ve always been taught about the importance of breath and it’s ability to extend vocal range and support vocal sound. When I began practicing yoga, I realized quickly that my breath capacity and control was already in a pretty good place, but I was really amazed as I continued my practice by how much deeper into a pose I could go, and how much more stamina my body had in general when I intently concentrated on my breathing. Having awesome instructors didn’t hurt either 🙂 I wholeheartedly agree with Keith’s point about breath being a key to opening other parts of our lives that may be closed off. And like Sylvia, I too think many people are oxygen deprived! When I’m stressed, I’ve noticed that sometimes I even hold my breath! Being aware of breath off the yoga mat is just as important as being aware of it when you are on the mat.
I work in a personal training setting, but believe that the perspectives yoga offers can be much more beneficial in working with clients of any fitness level. I always begin with breathing techniques and exercises with new clients, and try to get them to understand that without awareness of breath, success will be difficult to achieve. Some other trainers at my gym have inquired as to why I spend a good 5-10 minutes sometimes with my clients lying on their back, or doing very little external movement. I explain that it is necessary to control the breath before controlling any other movement because improper breathing can have such an impact on quality of movement. I think you have to train from the bottom up, the most fundamental function of our bodies is to breath in order to sustain life, and I am glad that some of the research in the training industry is beginning to put more emphasis on this fundamental connection of breath and movement.
I agree, Sylvia! Through my practice, I have become familiar with the three abodes of breath – abdominal, thoracic, and clavicular – and the body’s reaction associated with each. In my daily life, I have begun to notice when my body automatically slips into clavicular breathing – this is typically when I am frustrated or stressed. I have made a conscious effort to move my breath from high in my chest to my belly. In breathing this way and refocusing my attention to my breath, I calm down. I have always understood the importance of breath while practicing, but am beginning to learn how important this breath becomes in everyday life.
I agree on the importance of breath not only as part of Yoga practice, but as part of everything we do. As we lead stressful lives and are always in a hurry, we often forget to breathe. Our society is oxygen-deprived as we work in air-conditioned offices and live in thightly-sealed houses.
I learned to focus on my breath as I began to practice Yoga. I have to admit that at first it felt awkward and unnatural to breathe with every movement of my body. As my practice evolved over the years, I now look at breath as the most important aspect of Yoga. Working on asanas (poses) strengthens my body; pranayama (breath work) calms and quiets my mind and allows me to fully experience the essence of Yoga in my lungs, my belly, my heart, and throughout my entire self.