To Breathe or not to Breathe, that is the Question! – 8 Cues on the Breath in a Yoga Class
“So long as the (breathing) air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in passing out of the (breathing) air. It is, therefore, necessary to restrain the breath.”
-Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 15th century
What is Yoga?
First, you may want to know what yoga means. Most of us have some idea of what the practice means, thanks to yoga clothing shops and yoga magazines. The practice of yoga was developed in India more than 5,000 years ago as a method for integrating the human consciousness with the universal consciousness. In fact, the word yoga comes from a word meaning union, equivalent to the TAI-CHI or what most of us recognize as the yin/yang sign.
Yoga includes many aspects, which at the origin of the ‘science’, were really different to the pretzel-circus that it is today, thanks to the media.
These aspects are defined by Patanjali in the yoga sutras, and are called the 8 limbs. Among them, you’ll find, the Yamas and Niyamas (ingredients for a different post but roughly ethics and spiritual practice), of course, Asana (the physical postures), Pranayama (breathing for expansion if the life force), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) Dharana (concentration), Dyana (meditation) and Samadhi (transcendence). I have been reading a lot about the breath lately, and this post is about that, Pranayama.
I have been to many yoga classes with different teachers. I have tried Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hatha, Kundalini, Vinyasa and restorative, slow and fast, young teachers and old teachers, funny teachers and boring teachers. I have jumped, and stayed in the postures, I have heard about the breath since I was a kid and my yogi grand mother was scolding me for improper breathing patterns….
Lately I have been listening a lot more in the classes I attend and have found that language and cues about the breath can be misleading students. As a teacher and wellness coach, I know that sometimes we struggle with cues, and the most important thing in the process of sharing knowledge is being accurate. As a student, I struggle sometimes to follow, due to incomplete instructions.
Here’s a bit of what I have found so far, a few issues that yoga teachers should take into account.
1. Cue: “Breathe deeply”.
Here are my questions: What is deep? Long inhalation and long exhalation? What part of the lungs should the student use? Is it correct to see the students inflating themselves like a balloon? Most of the people that attend a yoga class will just inhale as much as they can. This is as far as deep ’rings the bell’.
Here’s what I have found as alternatives towards accuracy:
“Use your diaphragm” or “Breathe to the bottom of your lungs, towards the abdomen” or ”Breathe slowly and consciously”. When we breath, we don’t usually use all the ‘apparatuses’ that our amazing body has available for this purpose. Most of the students don’t use their diaphragms at all. I really think that this should be encouraged in yoga classes of all sorts. At the end, the purpose of this should be slowing the breath so we can achieve as a goal reducing the amount of inhalations per minute.
Here we find Patanjali again: “The fourth of the eight rungs (2.29) of Yoga is Pranayama, which is regulating the breath so as to make it slow and subtle (2.50), leading to the experience of the steady flow of energy (prana), which is beyond or underneath exhalation, inhalation, and the transitions between them (2.51).”
2. Cue: “Just breathe”
Interesting cue. Yes indeed, we do it all the time…. we breathe so we remain alive! But yet, we don’t pay attention how we do it or what we use.
I think we, as yoga instructors, should highlight more often the use of the nose for breathing. So here I am adding to the cue.
If we use the mouth, we are activating the sympathetic nervous system, and the ‘fight or flight’ response. Cortisol and adrenaline go to the bloodstream, digestion stops, pupils get dilated, etc etc etc. Sounds like a yoga class? hmmm, I doubt it! If we use the nose, on the other hand, we activate the para-sympathetic nervous system which activates… bingo!: ‘relax and enjoy’.
3. Cue: “Start your Ujjayi Breath”
I do it, I start it, because I know it. Most of the students don’t have a clue…. So they look at you open eyed, and then act as if nothing has happened. Seriously? I guess it’s the ego getting between them and the term, between their mats and the teacher’s. Usually, nobody asks what that means….
The most beautiful explanation I have heard to explain how to do Ujjayi came from Seane Corne: “As you inhale: Imagine you are sipping a drink with a straw. Do it with air. Sip through the straw through your mouth. Now, do it with your mouth closed”. Yes! The air goes to the throat, frictions against the palate and you hear that ‘scuba diver sound’. “As you exhale: imagine you are fogging a window for cleaning it. Feel the air coming out of your mouth. Then do the same thing with your nose”. Yes! Scuba diver again!
Let’s explain this yoga teachers… it’s beautiful when students get it! Ahhhh, smile!
4. Cue: “Biiiiiiiggggggg Inhale”
I come back to the balloon effect. We are hyperventilating here guys. And there are many benefits on not hyperventilating. Please check the Buteyko method for additional info.
Besides, how can you inhale this deeply when you are in downdog or Ardha Matsyendrasana? Yes, I have heard that. There is no way you can take a big inhale when your torso is all compressed.
As an alternative, I seriously love doing a bit of conscious hyperventilation here. Try bastrika for a few breaths. You’ll notice that your breath slows down afterwards in a natural way.
5. Cue: “Inhale and lenghthen, Exhale and fold”
This one, I like a lot. It gives me a rhythm, a path to follow, a connection with my body. Yes, yes, yes!
Caution: I would make sure other cues are used as to avoid injuries by just focusing on the breath.
6. Cue: “I am not hearing your breath!”
Yes, that’s me too, as a teacher, sometimes… but when you have 30 students breathing forcefully… that’s not natural and it’s distracting. Hearing your neighbour inhaling like a tired horse doesn’t help at all if you want to achieve the union. I really think I am changing this approach!
Rather go to the student to check the Ujjayi, and if you have 30, then drop it. Use specific cues before the postures.
7. Cue: “Slow your breath”
I like this one, I have to say. It brings you back to earth when you are shaking in a Warrior I or Utkatasana posture. It also brings your heart beat back to normal.
To combine with: “exhale longer than you inhale”.
8. A note more than a cue: ”Helps to generate prana (vital life force) and push out every ounce of carbon dioxide replacing with life-giving oxygen …”
Coming back to Buteyko, and I am not getting into details here, since others have published books on the matter, many assure that CO2 is a waste. However, we require normal CO2 levels in organs and cells, and if CO2 drops below the norm, we are very likely to experience some sort of disease.
What to say then? Please come back to the quote at the beginning of this post. In the 15th century, yoguis aimed at breathing less times per minute, thus improving prana. That doesn’t mean don’t breath. It means, find a pranayama class and practice. Encourage yourself to breathe avoiding hyperventilation. It takes time to ‘breath properly’ if such thing exists!
For students, well, slowing down in always a good alternative!
As a conclusion, don’t take your breath for granted. It’s the only means to do ‘union’ (did I say yoga? ). And, as a yoga instructor, why don’t we encourage studios to teach pranayama classes? That way students will get into the asana classes knowing a bit more. Breath in! And hold the light within you
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Written by: Claudia Saenz
Claudia Saenz has been a health and wellness coach for more than 10 years. Specializing in holistic health, energy healing and massage, TCM, yoga, meditation, space healing and Feng Shui. From color and sound healing to energetic yoga classes and one on one coaching in a blend of techniques, Claudia has helped people in 3 continents to discover their deeper selves.
She currently runs her own blog, Holistic Bridge, a project that stems from her passion of living a carefree and healthy life and encouraging others to do the same. In her spare time she likes to practice yoga, invent yummy and healthy recipes and enjoying nature.
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