“As long as you can take a deep breath in the pose, you’re safe.”
How many times have you heard this phrase from a yoga teacher? You may have even heard it from me…
Deep breathing has always been the fail-safe awareness detector for pose safety. The prevailing myth is that your breath is the best way to gauge whether or not you have traveled too deeply beyond your edge in a pose.
Although paying attention to your breath can give you a lot of information about whether you are straining or stressing your body to get into a pose, it’s not the only dashboard you should be checking. Over my 28+ years of yoga practice and teaching, I have come to the conclusion that deep and powerful breathing is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether you’ve blown past a range.
Proprioception: The body’s sense of itself
What’s so bad about blowing past a range if you can still breathe deeply? Well, your body has many different feedback systems that give you information about position, balance, pain and more. The majority of this information is gained from sensory neurons peppered throughout your connective tissues called proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors.
While these sensory systems are all interconnected to your breath, they are not necessarily going to impact radical change in the cadence or volume of your conscious inhales and exhales. In fact, you may be able to hold yourself in very awkward positions that strain your joints, ligaments, tendons and myofascias in ways that actually sedate the nervous system and cause you to breathe even more deeply and satisfactorily. Sigh.
How deep breathing can mask your sensing
Unfortunately, when you stretch past your end range time and again, you can alter your nervous system’s ability to gain sensory feedback about your joints’ positions. I sure did. Check out this picture of me over stretching my hamstrings. While I was in this pose it felt great – massive breaths filled me for minutes while I held the pose. But what the picture doesn’t show is me limping to the bathroom the next morning with an odd click in my hip and a constantly popping sacroiliac joint.
I had over stretched my body so much, I didn’t feel the cumulative affects of de-stabilizing my joints over decades of a fanatical practice. Once I finally accepted that fact, I had to learn to back off and sense the feedback my joints could communicate about stability. This meant allowing my fascias and connective tissues to “tighten up” in order to heal from being constantly lengthened and held for epic periods of time in poses.
At first, it seemed very un-yogic of me to ditch some of my old practice habits of deep breathing matched with contortion-worthy positions. I was attached to my practice, but it was hurting me. I even took the advice of my friend Gary Kraftsow, founder of Viniyoga, who suggested I stop deep breathing altogether and observe how my breath reacted to my movements rather than me try to over-pattern a stylized breath on top of every move.
Listen to another tune: Proprioception
In order to hear what your tissues are saying when they move, you may need to stop over-focusing on what your breath is saying. I know this may sound counter intuitive, but to gain a true consciousness of what your specific, uniquely wonderful body needs and is currently capable of (as opposed to attempting to match what someone else’s pose looks like or what you believe yours should look like), you may need to temporarily let go of your breath in order to hone in and learn to listen to other important indicators.
This was a total revelation to me.
Once I dropped the need to make breath the arbiter of control and allowed it to simply be one more way to observe how my body was responding to my practice, I began to innately respond to my body’s true needs.
As I consciously redirected my attention to healing my tissues and joints, I found an infinite number of creative ways to keep my body and mind stimulated. Thus my Yoga Tune Up® program was born. My deep focus now is teaching others how to awaken their proprioceptors so that they can locate tissues and develop a heightened sense of body awareness at all times. Deep breathing is of course a huge part of what I teach, but I also find that I often have to teach students to de-couple their breathing from every move they make.
Breath and movement: Better together?
Many yoga practitioners have become so unconsciously attached to linking breath and movement that they are no longer able to differentiate the two. In order to understand how breath complements movement, and how movement complements breath, you must be able to savor each one separately, as well as together. It’s like being able to taste the peanut butter and the jelly rather than blending them together first and smearing it on toast.
We are often taught that the breath is the be-all end-all of a focused yoga practice. That’s certainly what I believed for years! But while I do agree that breath work is an important part of any yoga practice, I’d like to open up the dialogue to consider additional safety systems, such as proprioceptive awareness. Give these other safety detectors the chance to show you their power.
Discover Yoga Tune Up® at home.
Learn about our Therapy Ball Programs
That is one eyes opening article. In yoga we take the statement “breath is our everything” as an axiom. I never doubted it.. Thank you Jill for shaking the walls and actually encouraging me to think on my own more often.
I have definitely used my breath as the primary check-in over the years. Doing the YTU Level 1 training has really helped me develop proprioception so that I can sense what’s going on in my body separate from my breath, and also sense my diaphragm more fully. Finding blind spots is key to bringing true healing to the body.
This post is really illuminating. I was encouraged today by the wonderful Ariel Kiley to allow my native breath to flow during our work today on the pelvic primer series. This was a tremendous challenge, as I realize I have become dependent on my ujayii pranayama. In the moments where I was able to let it go, my ability to propriocept each posture grew as I wasn’t covering sensation with the control of my breath. I appreciate that you point out how certainly breath control practices with movement are valuable, but that just like peanut butter and jelly, we want to appreciate and understand their flavors before we smush them together.
I’ve definitely used the breath as indicator instruction in my classes. It makes sense that using the breath as a way to monitor practice helps one continue to ignore ‘body blind spots’ (or not ignore, but not realize that they exist).
Attention to the breath has been so ingrained in my practice my default when working hard is a Ujjayi Pranayama. During my recent Level 1 Tune Up training I was coached several times to do it with out Ujjayi not realizing that, that was what I was doing. To let go of that and observe my native breath was challenging. Struggling to breath is a great indicator of going to far until you master the breath and become blind to the bodies signals. I will continue to be wary of this in my own practice and that of my students. Thank you.
I agree with what you are saying – especially for seasoned practitioners. This “breath as the guide” used to also be one of the ways I gauged depth of pressure on clients as a LMT. I once worked on a professional cyclist that needed help with insanely tight lateral quads and ITB. He appeared to be serene and was able to breathe very deeply. I verbally checked in with him after a few minutes of work only to find out he was in extreme pain. His training to “Psyche out” his opponents with a composed demeanor proved to me that breath is not always an accurate guide. Lesson learned.
How can this be applied to a not that flexible person? I think its easier for a non flexible person to be guided by the breathing because they cant actually go that far, their bodies shows them right away where to stop when breathing becomes harder. then, the tightness itself tell them to stop.
This post really resonated with me. As someone who’s always had a lot more natural flexibility than stability, the realization that it’s more valuable for me to intentionally limit my range of motion in order to build strength was paradigm-shifting. This new approach has completely changed the way I structure my personal practice and while it’s still a challenge, I know the effort is worthwhile since it will give me a healthier and more sustainable practice over time.
I totally recognized this in my practice today! Specifically, I recognized when I stopped breathing because I’m so used to moving one breath to one movement, but I also recognized how helpful it was to de-link the breath to movement and instead to listed to my body and see how my breath responded to what my body was experiencing. That was enlightening and quite freeing.
This is such an enlightening post. I have recently been grappling with the dilemma of figuring out what is a normal burn while holding a pose and what is going to far. I used to be a competitive cheerleader and gymnast, and we were always yelled at when we complained or said something hurt, so I’m finding that the sensory feedback my body is receiving may be a bit dulled from this prior conditioning. I had inquired further about this and found that as long as I’m able to continue to breathe in a pose, I should be fine. This blog has shown me that this may not actually be the case. I find it helpful because I am now going to see the breath and movement as two separate entities in order to allow myself to feel when something has gone too far rather than just focusing on my breathing. I find it a bit unsettling that a lot of students may be going further than what their body would like because they are only being told to focus on the breath as a point of safety. Thank you for this post!
Thank you for inspiring me to continue to explore my body and my practice, especially once it has gotten comfortable! Just when I thought I had it, there is something new to explore. It is an art to listen to the body as it forms and transforms. And it is also an art to be able to discard ideas that seem so fundamental once they no longer serve or become a risk. I have always made it a foundation of my practice to couple breath and movement — I am now inspired to explore what happens when I don’t. I bet there is a lot that my body will tell when I listen as oppose to habitually follow a rule.
I totally thought this article was going to be about breath, especially the breathing techniques you taught in our savannas and leg stretches in YTU Level 1 Training, but I was tricked! Haha. I have developed my proprioception in the past three days, and it is an amazing thing to have for my yoga practice and daily life. I saw the photo before I read this article, and I thought, wow, she is so flexible that is such a beautiful forward fold. And then I read on about how you were limping the next day!! Haha. I was just at the beach taking instagram pictures of me in Pyramid, and I have pretty tight hamstrings, and instead of flexing my spine, protracting my shoulders, and hyper flexing my hips to get my knee to my head, I decided to propriocept, and stop folding over sacrificing my body before other muscles and tendons overcompensated. I love this new awareness and I look forward to living in my body in awareness! Great article!!!
We can use the body and sensory perception to help provide a greater understanding of the physical self (a concrete object). Through the proper practice (technique, posture, breathing, tempo, etc.,) of asanas, one can begin to reveal to themselves who they really are. I agree, breathing allow is not full awareness of self.
All the comments about overstretching and clicking joints really resonate with me. Interestingly enough, I do believe my breath stops at times when I have gone too deep in a yoga pose. Ujjayi breathing sometime seems forced to me and YTU training has been monumental in reinforcing that it is OK NOT to always use Ujjayi breathing (whereas in Yoga teacher training, Ujjayi was always except savasana or other specific pranayama such as kapalbati). Another monumental revelation…. my proprioception is a bit skewed: my body is crooked! I am so grateful for this training helping me tune in deeper to my left and right side asynchrony: I now use a mirror whenever I can in my YTU and my yoga practices!
Great article! This relates to lifting weights as well. If you are lifting your maximal load it is important to actually hold your breath to create stabilization of the spine, especially during dead lifts, or you risk herniating a disk. Coming from a ballet background, where the more you bend the better, its important to understand that hyper-mobility should not be the goal or purpose for the practice, living pain free is the purpose!
I often witness my focus in class going to other people’s exaggerated Ujayii breath wondering if I had to find a greater expression of my own, distracting me from my practice. After reading that the Ujayii breath “should be as soft and internal as possible so that it is only heard by you” from your book Catch Your Breath, I finally have the language to guide my future students to release their breath a little to allow the space to focus on the other indicators described here, a fantastic tool, thank you!
This makes so much sense, not just the use of breath masking or providing an escape from pain, but latching on to any one thing thing as an imutable principle. As an eager searcher for “THE answer” I can easily fall prey to dogma, and it has never served me as either student or teacher. There is no way to get around the complexity of being a human being in a body, and that requires attention, discrimination and no comfortable panaceas. I appreciate the spirit of exploration and discovery in the YTU system, and think it is indeed spiritual in the best possible way.
What you present have to grapple with. I have a habit of holding and losing my breath. Which creates tension. I have trouble with my breath and allowing the intercostals to expand. So for me I need the breath to not hold myself in one place. What I get from your article is that you really are saying don’t attach yourself to an idea of perfection as it can take you off course. You can not hold onto ideal because it might not serve you in the way that you need. It is ego and selfishness in a way, verse giving up that ideal to be able to hear your body again.
This article is extremely valuable to my practice, Jill. I’ve been practicing vinyasa yoga for years, and as a current Yoga Tune Up trainee (just completed day three), I’ve noticed how attached my breath is to my poses. I don’t believe this to be wrong or harmful; my breath allows me to hold and deepen within each posture. However, I do notice how other parts of my body communicate while I’m holding a pose, and they aren’t pretty messages. For example, I can gradually abduct my hip and extend my knee by my head to hold a full version of compass pose, but it can leave a burning sensation in my coxal joint. This training is deepening my understanding of modifications and is also helping me establish a concrete, scientific background that I look forward to incorporating into the classes that I will eventually teach.
What a great article! The concept of letting go of certain poses that no longer suite you, and releasing the need to control (breath, depth, etc.) in poses, is one that is so obvious. The issue is that it is also so foreign to the over-achieving yogi. I can recall a particular class where I just had to achieve compass pose. Yay for me… I did, but at the expense of a torn hamstring attachment, whose affects I had to recover from for months!
Wow! I really enjoyed this article. You have truly embodied the idea of doing what’s best for your body and range of motion, rather than what you think a pose should look like (usually by comparing yourself to others in the pose). I personally believe in linking breath to movement but I also agree with your stance that there are other important factors to consider as well, such as what your joints and muscles are telling you. I especially relate to how you said something felt great at the time, such as your deep forward bending, but then later your body was hurting from it. I have this same issue with back bending. I am quite flexible in my back and teachers often adjust and encourage me to go further, yet I have a sensitive lower back and often feel pain for days after a particularly back-focused yoga class. I have had to learn to listen to my body and let teachers know of my injuries – also an important factor.
Big appreciation for the comments from mado and monica ~
As mentioned above, using the breath as another form of observation, rather than a dictator of movement or range seems to be common sense, yet instead it is often used as “the” indicator of what we can or should be doing. “Oh, I can still take a breath here? That means I must be able to push deeper…” and so on. This reminds me of a similar technique elite athletes use as they use their breath to overcome mental challenges, pain, and the brain signalling them to literally STOP. “Okay, if I just breathe I’ll push past my body’s “weakness” and carry on.” In those instances they also ‘blow past’ their ranges and often create circumstances where injury occurs. This is a valuable subject for everyone who has used breath for that “push.”
love this blog. yogi’s are taught and train themselves to breath through the pain and i am a master at this.
And, this also points out that the cues that are effective for people who are new to yoga are not necessarily the same cues that will be helpful and sustainable over the long term. One of my goals as a yoga teacher is to help people recognize their habitual tendencies and learn to compensate for them. I think this is what you refer to as body blind spots, though I see them as extending beyond the body – I guess that could be called our brain blind spots. So once a spot is no longer blind, we no longer need the same cues to compensate.
I see this from two perspectives:
1. In general, deep breathing helps us cope with pain. So, for example when my 10 year old daughter is trying to not cry, I coach her to breathe deeply.
2. As hatha yogis, we are trained to continue breathing deeply beyond the places where our breath would normally become ragged or shallow. It seems a natural extension of the above principle and it is true that when the ragged shallow breath happens it is a cue to pay attention. BUT if we have already trained ourselves to breathe deeply through intensity, then that cue becomes less effective.
So I love the reminder that breath is only one way of noticing whether or not we are pushing beyond our healthy limits – and not THE way. Thanks for bringing a breath of fresh air to this yoga dogma. 😉
How perfect that I read this post immediately after reading and commenting on one about the beauty and power of linking movement to breath. Jill’s post reminds me of how, in Mysore with KPJ, I taught myself to breathe deeply and fully (through tremendous pain), in spite of being severely injured by my teacher. Inside, I was writhing in agony, but to someone observing I probably looked calm and collected. My fakery was rewarded with comments like “Good lady, free breathing you do.”. At that time I was torn: one part of me tried to buy into the myth that everything was okay if I could breathe in a certain way, while another part knew that continuing to do an extreme practice, even with smooth deep breaths, was causing greater and greater harm. Unfortunately, I gave more respect to the teacher’s opinion and peer pressure than I did to my own “still small voice” and ended up with permanent structural damage and chronic pain. So, in addition to inspiring me to think more carefully about how I teach the breath, this post reminds me of how important it is to teach students to pay careful attention to sensation, to not assume that the teacher knows more about what’s good for them than they do, and to make self-care a priority in yoga practice.
One of my teachers told me the best story to think about the importance of deep breathing. If we look at the wild cat cheeta which is the fastest animal in the world, we realize that the strenght is not only about muscles. The cheeta has large lunges and a big heart. Both’re working together to fill the body with fresh oxygen. We could life without food for weeks and without water for days, but we will die without oxygen in minutes. This was a very good point to show me the importance of deep breathing.
When things start to get interesting in Vinyasa class, I find myself breathing deeper trying to bare what’s happening with my body. This is a great reminder when listening to your body goes beyond the breathing, and really paying attention to what you are feeling and knowing when you’ve pushed too far. Breath is the life force, so of course we need to keep breathing, but it is equally as important to know your limits and take it easy when you need to.
It’s such an interesting paradox- most people come to yoga with very little breath awareness at all, so to get them to link breath to movement at all can be a huge revelation. (and as a teacher, a relatively easy one to impart) But putting the breath or breath synchronization (hello vinyasa- and I’m as guilty as any teacher) is no guarantee of safety or efficiency. This is a great reminder that the breath is one piece of a larger puzzle, and can’t substitute for whole body awareness. Something I need to remind my students (and myself) of regularly.
I’ve never heard this before, but it absolutely makes sense. There have definitely been times after my practice where I’ve felt over stretched indeed. I’m sure it was because I was more focused on my deep breathing rather than what my body was actually doing. I will start to explore this awareness.
This piece has really spoken to me… In pilates, there is such a focus on breath and I have had many instructors over the years teach varying views on when and how to incorporate breath during specific exercises. But, I have felt that it can take away from the essence of the exercise if breath overused. I have seen and felt that this overuse can cause unnecessary tension in the body and detract from the intent of the work. These are topics that I will be exploring further for myself with the new knowledge that I am gaining from your program.
I am new to Yoga Tune Up and I am so inspired by it! I am so excited to gain insights on and explore topics from your talented team. I am looking forward using this new knowledge to improve my personal practice and to enhance my teaching. Thank you!
In the Iyengar tradition, pranayama is an advanced practice done in a separate session from the asana practice and savasana is taken just as it would be in a more “physical” practice. I think it’s worthwhile to explore this paradigm on a grander scale. As a yoga population we need to get your gross anatomy straightened out, figure out how we move, and where our blind spots are and THEN layer in this very powerful tool. All the while remembering that these breathing techniques are a tool and NOT a rule.
In some ways this seems like common sense, but it really brings this simple but important concept home. I also find “controlling” the breath helps one tune in to the body and “use many of the other tools” required be it when doing a static yoga pose, or dynamic high impact movements.
The breath has always been a strong gauge for my practice, cuing me to back out of a pose and allowing my ego to be checked at the door during my practice. With my recent YTU training, the proprioception piece was one of the greatest insights, how is my body reacting to a pose or how is it feeling before I even start? Taking the time to understand and feel each muscle, understanding my body, how it behaves etc…..It’s a constant work in progress. I will dedicate more attention to releasing my big belly breathe to check in with how my body is feeling and telling me so that I am treating it with the kindness and respect that it deserves, to truly continue to strengthen and heal it as intended.
This will allow to bring true sthira and sukha to my practice. Thanks for sharing this valuable insight!
Thanks Jill, this is a really insightful piece. This also tangentially brought up another issue of instability. Typically I try and do all my Yoga Tune Up ball work and Kelly’s mobility just before I go to bed. I tried doing it before a work out and it de stabilizes me a bit in the joints.
Before I became more forgiving on my body, all poses were to the fullest extreme of flexibility until the insertion to of my hamstrings started to hurt then the elbows went on strike. I finally humbled myself and backed out of pretzel nation. Breath & body is also added with mind. I came to learn that movement should come with a lot of intelligence. Learning to back off should not just be a practice that exists on the mat but should also exist in personal life.
I find this so fascinating because I had never really thought about how my breathing has contributed to a pose. I use to hold my breath when working hard, so when I began practicing yoga breathing was the challenge. Then I found a love for deep breathing and “linking breath and movement” but like yourself, I often and easily overstretch without realizing it (until later on). I also really have to comment on the fact I love your analogy of movement and breath being like putting peanut butter (mhmm) and jelly, its makes so much sense!
As an athlete, my biggest fear was to hit a plateau. So of course, I would consistently look to “blow past” my range in just about anything associated to my sport, every chance I got.
After discovering Yoga Tune-Up, as well as other meditative practices, I’ve come to realization that my former approach to physical training and acceptance of the “bigger-faster-better” or “no pain, no gain” philosophies were actually hurting my ability to perform, and ultimately hurting me. I had bought into the idea that painful workouts were good workouts. (See “Selling Freezers to Eskimos” for further references)
To make a long story short, YTU is a wonderful tool that has allowed me to re-establish a healthier relationship with my body and create an ongoing dialogue with what is happening within the walls of my skin. Learning the impact of what my breath has on my entire system, learning about proprioception and how to develop its acuity, so-on-and-so-forth… Has been revolutionary for me.
As for the dreaded plateau… I started YTU a year ago in August 2012. I care very little about plateaus now.
Thanks Jill for sharing.
This is definitely something to chew on and contemplate in my practice. Linking movement with breath is a major part of my teaching, but I see your point about blowing past a range if you are not feeling proprioception in the pose, but are simply going for the glory or the final appearance. I love hearing how someone who may have been looked upon with admiration for the depth of poses and tricks has apprehension about doing this to their body (based on experience of how you felt afterwards). As I approach 50 and no longer feel as capable of some of the “glory poses”, I am quite happy to use yoga for staying well, rather than seeing whether or not I can get into the challenging poses.
Interesting! I was just thinking about how much I loved doing standing diaphragm based backbend and how I take short breaths when I go deeper into this pose and others or when something gets challenging. At a certain point when my breaths get shorter, I like to slowly get out of the pose (especially in back bends because my back has become pretty flexible through years of dance and yoga) so I’m not over stretching. Thanks for reinforcing what my body was feeling and what my mind was wondering.