When you first start doing yoga and your teacher tells you to focus on your breath you're kinda like What about it? It is boring and you are dying to start moving. Only then 5 minutes later, most likely surprised/ stressed/ covered in sweat and definitely out of breath it may seem to you that nobody else is struggling…
As a teacher you can notably see the change occur when a student has connected to the breath, to the source. Everything changes. They move slowly, their eyes stop searching the room and go soft, their focus and body awareness deepens, they do not push too hard anymore, nor are they lazy, above all they are CALM and STEADY IN THE MOMENT
When teachers direct movement with breath we need to remember that it's not simply a case of breathing in, do this and breathing out, do that. If that was the case we could just say 1, 2,1, 2, in other words we could just count.
If breath was just breath in and breath out why do you think there are hundreds of scriptures, texts, books, yogis and gurus who have written about the boring breath? The breath is a science of manipulating the body in order to achieve certain effects. For example we can defy age, keep the body young, the organs, blood and nerves fresh, the digestive system active and flowing, increase the strength of our heart muscles and the capacity of our lungs, we can fight disease better and have stronger immune systems.
It's not just breathing or respiration when we practise breathing in yoga. Yoga ties the mind to the body and the senses through the breath. The breath is that which joins or yokes the outside to the inside physically, energetically, and emotionally.
Through breath we can even tap into our very own brains and electrical systems by directly affecting our nervous systems. Because breathing is the ONLY action of the body that can be voluntary or involuntary, think bout it, we can’t make ourselves hot or cold or make our food digest slow or fast, we can't make ourselves agitated or calm just by will power alone, yet by manipulating the breath we can do all of these things. Obviously the effects increase depending on whether we are practising breath awareness or increased complex pranayamas. The rate, speed, depth and frequency of the breath affects absolutely everything. Try panting and mentally plan your day tomorrow or hold your breath and see if you can relax.
I had a surprise complete beginner student recently in class. He arrived too late sadly to learn about the activation and focus on the breath before we started moving. Suddenly this elderly gentleman is huffing and puffing and scrabbling around his mat as we we go through a few rounds of surya namaskar, designed of course to connect the move with the breath pattern and shape. He was clearly disconnected to his breath and his body which defeats the object of the the the exercise. I ended up standing beside him and showing him to simply breathe long and smooth though the nose, a much more beneficial exercise!
Breathing through the nose is of upmost importance as it warms as well as tones the breath, very different to breathing quickly and shallow through the mouth which does not clean or cool the air. The nostril channel is smaller than the mouth obviously and so the breath takes longer to fill up the lung and is under more pressure to pass through it's airway, this is enhanced with Ujjayi- The Victorious Breath.
In my classes I'm explaining Why we inhale when we do that, Why we exhale when we do that. The two sides of the breath create very different patterns in the body, the muscles and skeleton actually create different shapes, or two different effects . Inhale of course is filling up, pushing, creating space, lightness, reach and and buoyancy. Exhale is the opposite, creator of tension, toning, pulling, drag, vaccum. So it's clear that certain movements accompany one and others the other, ashtanga yoga sets this up very well as the vinyasas for example are not possible without this knowledge and of course hip flexion and forward bend shapes make the bandhas more apparent.
Bandhas are the joining of the breath, which comes from the external world to the inner body. Gas exchange becomes spinal positions and mind focus. Without bandhas is there fluidity in the practise? If you are not focussing constantly on this inner body, this inner world that is constantly in flux and between expansion and contraction, lift and drag, growth and surrender, and breathes and moves upon that then the mind could be anywhere… sure i’m moving my leg or my hip or my foot, but this is so external compared to where the ,ind could be headed, to a quiet place with breath leads the way to stillness and the heart may open up.
The integral part of your practise, is bandha and spine, if you are practising Hatha yoga. There are other kinds of yoga that don't use the body, but this is hatha yoga according to the last few hundred years. It started out as breath, pranayama and mudras, and asanas came later as positions to enhance the effects of the latter. And if we are modernising and adapting the teachings we have to respect that the core of the practise is essentially to manipulate and energise the body very dynamically to achieve great health and also enlightenment ( if we are presuming that hatha yogis still practise for the sake of raja yoga) . The very word hatha comes from hathat in sanskrit- to force.
If we are not focussing on this energetic aspect or at least acknowledging it and the power of the breath then i feel we are missing out! And this could explain why yoga is becoming so diverse, without depth we seek variety because we get bored!!!! Imagine if you knew your breath so well that it never bored you, the way we can control its depth, strength, frequency and position is utterly fascinating, tenfold in postures.
Ashtangis come to know the breath- bandha technique very deeply because the sequence is so simple, a frame to enhance and highlight the technique steadily and repetitively. We can study it intensely and deepen our use of it just by practising the same precise thing over and over and over.
Remember also that we have a tendency to focus on stretching these days,on getting bigger, more open, and overreaching, its funny actually we are obsessed with opening but never contracting! I guess it is not so pretty or Instagrammable. Truth is it cannot be a stretch if the other side of what you are pulling is not fixed. So there has to be this tug of war between the inhale and the exhale, one reaches, one resists. I teach the end of the exhale as the start and the end of every move I guess, its the hooking onto the core of the body, the support, the mula bandha is there.
Think of a bellows, a machine, with pistons, valves, lever, pumps and pressure, a vessel that compacts, pressurises and directs a gas or liquid to create power, heat and ENERGY. In the practise this also equates to STRENGTH AND STABILITY. This is the yogic breath. (unless we are practising yin or restorative yoga, I should have mentioned earlier- these are of course very modern practises that have probably evolved to counteract the stressed life of the modern human) Practitioners who harness and master this inner technique may seem to defy gravity with what they can achieve simply by building, steering and releasing this energy (bandha can be translate as bound up energy, or a catch that releases) But on a basic level it is very easy to do, you don't even have to be able to do a posture to practise it, you just need to connect to UDDIYANA BANDHA.
If this toned long breath is not there, is not present. then the practitioner does not have the chance to connect to the breathing musculature or the spine. The inner body or energy we tap into and power up with breath bandha mechanics is missed. I believe a practitioner who does not do this can risk injury, especially when practising postures that demand lots of flexibility, inverting or balancing. by practising shapes with a weak core or less attention on the core , they risk their mind being idle or the ego looking for a challenge, but mostly they may find it hard to advance as there is not a deep connection to the technique needed in the body to safely and intelligently execute strength, grace and lightness, which in turn facilitates a meditative seamless practise.