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Thursday, May 15, 2008

What About the Breath?

I'm always a little mystified when a student asks me "Where's the breath in your classes?" OK, it's true that I don't instruct every breath in class, but to me the breath is everywhere. It is, quite simply, the gift of your own life, the gift of grace.

When you turn to the breath, you can't help but think how extraordinary, how rare, how precious this life really is. Of all the things that could have happened, the universe became YOU. Just as you are. Doesn't that make you shudder with awe, when you really think about it?

I think of life as a gift not because it was necessarily given by someone, but because it's just what was given as you. And it's a gift in the truest sense of the word because you need not pay any attention to it at all; there is no requirement to further engagement. As my teacher Douglas Brooks says, what makes something a gift is that "you didn't earn it, you don't deserve it, and you can't pay it back."

So what's left is yoga, the participation with and engagement of and savoring of life out of your own freedom (it's not required), simply for its own sake.

Pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, is the practice of engaging and participating in prana, the breath and the very essence of life. It is generally translated as "restraining" (yama) the "prana" (life force). The first question that comes to mind is, how could you control the energy of life itself? Instead, I like the translation Douglas Brooks once gave by dividing the word in a different place: "extending" (ayama) the prana.

Although prana refers to the pulsation and movement of life in everything, the breath is definitely our easiest access point to experiencing and participating in the life force. There are said to be five pranas in the body, and two of them correspond to the inhale and the exhale: prana vayu and apana vayu (which is which is a matter of some debate). In any case, these are the two that we can work with deliberately.

There are many wonderful practices of pranayama (see B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Pranayama for more on this), but what I'm going to offer here is how the practice and engagement of the breath works through an asana practice.


  • Open to Grace: Just by merely turning to the gift of ourselves, we are stepping into the current of grace. Even with a natural breath, you'll notice that the inhales expand your inner body (your energetic body) while at the same time drawing the outer body (your muscles and bones) more toward the core. And the exhales do just the opposite: the inner body contracts while the outer body extends. This is the natural pulse of life. When we engage this through ujjayi breath (toning the epiglottis to make a resonant breath), now we're stepping into yoga. (Ujjayi pranayama is the basic breath for an asana practice.) So the first principle of Anusara Yoga is not a passive principle (as Paul Muller-Ortega said at our teachers' gathering, it's not like you surrender yourself and say "Grace, come do me"); rather, it invites our active participation with the essence of life. The inner body naturally wants to expand on the inhales, so make space for it and it will rush in and fill you. This is what we call "inner body bright" and it includes a full expansion, from the pelvic floor all the way up through the dome of the palate. The sides of the torso, and front and back, all lift and swell with prana. This is followed by a release with gravity of the outer form on the exhale, which in Anusara terms is what we call "outer body soft." Inhale: inner body bright -- you make space for the prana to fill you. Exhale: outer body soft -- as you allow the outer form to melt and release onto that fullness.
  • Muscle Energy: So the inhale is naturally more muscular in the outer form and the exhale is more muscular on the inner body. So how do you code the breath? It depends on which perspective you want to take (and that choice depends on what you think will be the most empowering). In general, you can use the inhale to help engage active Muscle Energy of the outer body (particularly when coming out of twists, where it's important to stabilize the muscles around the sacrum). You can use the exhale to get more Muscle Energy in your inner body (as in going into forward bends and twists, when you want the inner form to contract).
  • Loops: The seven pairs of loops are really refinements of Muscle and Organic Energy, and the breath can be used to support the energetic flow of the loops if you think about it in this way. John Friend outlines this very clearly in the Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual. Basically, you'll inhale up the side of the loop that is more muscular or that's more opening to the inner body, and exhale down the side that is more organic or more softening. For example, the thigh loop would be Muscular on the front and Organic on the back, so you would inhale up the front of the thigh while exhaling down the back of the thigh loop. The Kidney Loop, is expansive in the back and softening on the front, so it would be supported by an inhale up the back and an exhale down the front. Stay with me, and you'll feel it when you practice in parsvottanasana below.
  • Inner Spiral: One of the features of the natural breath is that the inhale expands and dilates the pelvic floor, and so it naturally supports the action of Inner Spiral.
  • Outer Spiral: Similarly, the exhale naturally contracts the pelvic floor, and so it serves to support Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy: The exhale is naturally more expansive on the outer form, so you can use the exhales to support active Organic Energy, especially downward through the limbs. From the perspective of the inner body, the inhale will be more Organic or expansive, so you can use inhales to create active lengthening through the spine or extension away from gravity.

  • Sukhasana: Just feel the natural breath, and notice how it affects the inner and outer body. Then engage ujjayi breath by toning the epiglottis until you can hear your own breath. Ujjayi is a light engagement (remember, it's not to control the life force, but to participate in its flow), and shouldn't make you light-headed. It's the basic breath you'll keep going through your asana practice.
  • Hands and knees, then bring one cheek to the floor (place your arms wherever is comfortable, but keep your hips right over your knees). Feel the natural breath in your pelvis. In this form, it's easy to connect to how the inhales expand the pelvic floor, and how the exhales contract the pelvic floor.
  • Cat/Cow: This is a great place to experiment with the different perspectives on the breath. Usually, I teach this with the inhale to extend the spine (cow) and the exhale to round the back (cat). But you could easily do this with the breath oriented the other way. Try it with the exhale to extend and the inhale to contract. You may find that you have more of a connection to the back body that way.
  • Standing poses: Try a few simple standing poses following the breath in this way: Inhale to expand inner body, exhale to soften outer body. Inhale to engage the muscles to the core, exhale to extend the bones from the core. Inhale to inner spiral, turning the inner thighs in back and wide, exhale to engage more outer spiral, anchoring the tailbone down.
  • Parsvottanasana: Now work with the breath and the loops. Remember that the loops always initiate to the back plane first (and that's why you might find an extra breath between most loops). Full inhale, then exhale down the back of the ankle, inhale lift the toes (ankle loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back of the calf and exhale down the front of the shin (shin loop). Inhale, then exhale down the backs of the thighs and inhale up the front (thigh loop). Exhale to the back waistline and down through the sacrum and inhale up the front of the low belly (pelvic loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back waistline and exhale down the front ribs (kidney loop). Inhale, then exhale palate back and down the shoulder blades, inhale up the front of the chest (shoulder loop). Exhale, then inhale up the back of the skull and exhale down the front of the face (skull loop). Got that?
  • Seated twist (choose something simple, like twisted sukhasana, or ardha matsyendrasana): The key to using the breath while twisting is to inhale to lengthen the spine (the inhale supports that inner body bright) and exhale into the twist (the inner body contracts on the exhale, making it easier to twist the organs). When you come out of the pose, use an inhale to get more Muscle Energy to help stabilize the sacrum.
  • Seated forward bends: Just like in the twists, the inhale can be used to lengthen the spine, and the exhales to soften more deeply into the pose.
  • Pranayama: I love doing pranayama after an asana practice, because the support structure and vessel for a deepening engagement with the breath is already there.

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