Move with your breath . . . Just follow your breath . . . Let the breath lead you . . . If you’ve spent any time in yoga classes, you have most likely heard cues like this many times. As yoga teachers, we cue the breath frequently because it is a core aspect of yoga practice. The reason the breath is so important in yoga is that working with the breath is the gateway to working with the subtle dimension of breath—prana, or life-force energy.
In the first article in this series, “Breath-Connected Movement: Gateway to Fulfillment,” we learned that the experience, or awareness, of prana is at the heart of yoga practice, bringing a sense of inner peace and fulfillment. We also learned that yoga offers a formula for unlocking this pranic awareness: yogic breathing + breath-connected movement = pranic awareness. But what is yogic breathing, and how, exactly, do we connect movement with the breath? In my experience practicing and teaching yoga, these questions tend to get missed or glossed over. Moving with yogic breathing is simple and challenging at the same time, and it can be broken down into a few clear and practical basics:
- Move consciously. This is what we are working on when we first begin to practice yoga—becoming mentally aware of the movement, rather than doing it automatically and unconsciously.
- Cultivate yogic breathing, also referred to as optimal diaphragmatic breathing. This is breathing that is deep, smooth, even, continuous, and quiet. We cultivate this way of breathing using breath training practices like sandbag breathing and crocodile pose.
- Allow your movement to fit your breath instead of trying to make your breath fit your movement. When we are trying to fit our breath to our movement, we are usually straining to lengthen the breath, or to hold it.
- Remember that the pace of your breath is unique to you. This is why students in a class will all be moving at slightly different paces.
This way of working with breath-connected movement naturally sets the stage for the experience of pranic awareness.
Try a simple practice of breath-connected movement for yourself!
- From a standing position, lift and then lower your arm. First, don’t try to link this movement to your breath. Instead, simply be aware of your arm as you lift and lower it.
- Now, lift your arm again as you inhale. Think about what happens if your inhalation is complete before you’ve lifted your arm all the way up. Do you hold or strain your breath to complete the movement? Most people will.
- Lower your arm as you exhale. How does this movement correlate with your exhalation?
- Now, contemplate the pace at which you are lifting your arm, and more closely match it to the pace of your breath without straining. It may take a few tries, but once you get it you will probably sense that you are moving with greater ease and beginning to become more aware of the inner dimension of your movement.
Breath-connected movement, ideally, leads us into breath-connected stillness.
In the above example, we applied the concept of breath-connected movement to something fairly simple—lifting and lowering the arm. We also want to apply the same idea to more complex movements like sun salutations and agni sara, and to every movement we make. As we move through our practice there is no break in the breath or the movement. This breath-connected movement then, ideally, leads us into breath-connected stillness, where we focus on the breath in different parts of the body (as we do in systematic relaxation practices) or focus on the breath in applying meditative pranayamas. In this place of inner stillness, we are held and anchored by the stabilizing force of prana, but we began with simple, breath-connected movement. Truly, the breath is the thread which connects all aspects of our yoga practice.
In the third and final article of The Simple Power of Breath-Connected Movement series, we will refine our practice by exploring how inhalation flows naturally with certain types of movement, such as lifting or expanding, while exhalation flows naturally with the opposite types of movement.