So you're in a yoga class (most likely virtual these days, but feel free to draw on your memories of in-person classes taken pre-pandemic). If you're a beginner, you may have begun wondering why you're hearing so many reminders to breathe, focus on the breath, move with the breath, breathe, breathe, breathe. Well, there's a good reason for this seeming obsession with the breath. The ultimate goal of yoga, as stated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (basically the Holy Bible of yoga; Patanjali was a revered Indian Rishi (great sage / enlightened person) who compiled the science of yoga into one handy book) is this: citta vrtti nirodha - that's Sanskrit for "a mind focused in one direction", or in other words, "a still mind".
What does the breath have to do with a still mind? Basically, everything. Have you ever noticed one of the first things we tell people who are in a highly agitated state is to take a deep breath? Breathing deeply immediately begins to soothe the nervous system and triggers a relaxation response in the body. Also, because breathing deeply is not an automatic, effortless physiological response, it forces the mind to pay attention to what we're doing because we have to do it consciously. And that, my friends, is yoga: directing our attention to what we're doing. So if we're breathing in a very deliberate, conscious manner, our attention has been summoned.
There are many other aspects to the breath as it relates to the control of prana (life force) within the body and its effects on our subtle or energetic body, but I'll have to save that for future posts or we could be here for a while. For this one, let's focus on the basics, the foundation of yogic breathing. In a nutshell, it's pretty simple: breathe deeply through your nose. (Of course, if you're congested or suffer from sinus issues or anything that prevents you from breathing through your nose, adjust accordingly - there's no dogma in yoga.)
The technique I'm presenting here may very well be the opposite of what you've heard in most yoga classes but since learning this particular breathing technique, I feel it's much more intuitive and in sync with how we actually breathe, from a physiological perspective, and how we move in an asana (physical posture) yoga practice. This technique is also described in this book (which I think is one of the best books on yoga):
As you begin to deepen your breath, you want the inhale to begin in the upper chest (area of the collarbones, then continue downward expanding the rib cage and filling the lungs, and finally inflating the belly. As you exhale, the belly contracts, the exhale continues upward, contracting the rib cage, and finally empties the upper chest, relaxing the collarbones. So, our inhale is a downward, expansive movement, and our exhale is an upward, contractile movement.
One more layer we can add to further control our breath, is what's known as Ujjayi (or victorious) breath, or if you're a Star Wars fan, it's also been called the Darth Vader breath because of the sound it creates. It consists of a slight constriction of the throat which is the same type of constriction you would engage if you were attempting to fog a mirror (pretend your hand is a mirror, as shown below).
Options shown (Step 1: with mouth open; Step 2: same action with mouth closed):
Start with your mouth open and as you exhale fog your mirror. (For beginners, I would suggest inhaling normally and engaging Ujjayi on the exhale only. You can do it on both the inhale and exhale but it can feel pretty intense and may cause lightheadedness. It took me 10 years before I attempted it on both inhale and exhale). Then, do the exact same thing but with your mouth closed. If it helps, you can start with your mouth open, then halfway through the exhale, close your mouth, and continue Ujjayi to the end of the breath. This type of breath does create a sound, like an ocean wave gently breaking on the shore, or as mentioned above, like Darth Vader breathing. Once you've got the technique down, then you can relax the arms on either side, and practice your deep breathing with Ujjayi.
Ujjayi is particularly useful for an active asana practice since it allows us to effectively regulate our breath when we're being physically (and mentally) challenged, encouraging us to remain calm and focused, and also reducing our overall reactivity to challenges. And remember, the breath is primary, the pose is secondary. If your breathing is choppy or labored, that's a clear signal to ease up a little or come out of a pose. The breath should be smooth and deep, no matter what you're doing. Your breath is your guide. Listen to it.