The benefits of taking time to breathe are common sense, yet taking time to do so is counter-intuitive for most of us. When experiencing stress or feelings of panic, we instinctively know that slowing down our breath might help. We say, ‘calm down… take deep breaths…’ but for a process that happens automatically, controlling our breath can feel like a chore in comparison.
If you are new to yoga and have recently begun a class, you will notice that your teacher constantly instructs you to breathe. To begin with, it’s likely that you will ignore the instruction (intentionally or unintentionally) as you will have much to concentrate on besides when and how to inhale or exhale. How you breathe will be the least of your worries, although you will still benefit from a reminder every now and again. Holding our breath is very common when we are concentrating and it may come as a surprise that your teacher notices you doing this before you do. (Without wishing to give away all the yoga-teaching-circle secrets - your purple-blue face is a good hint!)
Once you have settled into the class routine and have become familiar with some postures, it’s likely that you will have the space to add some breath work into your practice. In the early stages, this is likely to feel unnatural (because it is) and uncomfortable (because it is). You might even feel that breathing is just another aspect of the yoga class that you are getting wrong. As you become more practiced however, this will pass. Learning to breathe (like learning anything new) is difficult – so go ahead and let yourself off the hook.
It is the common misconception of a new yoga student that a) they need to keep up with the teacher and b) everyone in the class is managing to keep up except them (note: this applies to all aspects of the yoga class, not just the breathing part). The chances that both the timing and capacity of your breath will match your teacher’s instruction is not only slim, it's undesirable – your teacher is there to check your breath not conduct it, and there will be many factors affecting your breathing, not least how quickly and seamlessly you can move into and out of a posture.
Increase awareness of your breath by asking yourself the questions: Am I breathing? How does my breath feel?
(Hint: To keep you on the straight and narrow, the answers to these questions are not: ‘Of course I’m breathing you stupid woman!’; ‘My breath feels melancholy/perplexed/joyful yet tinged with a distant sense of visceral grief.’)
‘Am I breathing?’ will ensure that you do indeed breathe, rather than holding your breath in. You can test this no-brainer in any posture where the chest or abdomen is constricted, such as Parivritta Trikonasana (Reverse Triangle), or whilst binding in Marichyasana C (Pose of the Sage), or any other posture you find particularly difficult.
The answer to ‘How does my breath feel?’ doesn’t matter, what matters is how it informs your next action. Adho Muhka Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog) in Surya Namaskar A & B (Sun Salutations) provides a good opportunity for you to practice asking yourself this. In your first down-dog, your breath may be fairly even, light and easy to direct in and out through the nose. By your fifth, breathing through your nose may have become nigh on impossible. Noticing this could lead you to consciously deepen your inhale and extend your exhale, or it could lead you to bend the knees slightly and ease off. This is an empirical way to realise that your mind, breath and body are interconnected.
‘When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady, the mind is steady, and the yogi becomes steady.’ Hatha Yoga Pradipika
A friend of mine recently shared the animation above, which is intended as a breathing aid to help diminish anxiety. The instructions to use it are simple; inhale as the shape expands, exhale as the shape contracts. Aside from matching my website’s colour scheme, I like this animation for a number of reasons; it is easy and natural to follow, it works (!) and its geometry is pleasingly symmetrical, which gives our (my) neurotic mind(s) one less thing to worry about.
If you are new to the concept of breathing exercises; are short on time; feel overwhelmed or sceptical about the idea, using this visual cue is not only a good way to start, but is also a good way to start feeling the benefits. In simplified terms, breathing slowly and evenly reduces the heart rate and lowers the blood pressure. This sedates our sympathetic nervous system, kick-starts relaxation and reverses our bodies’ stress response. In the words of my teacher, Richard Adamo:
‘Breathing effectively can mean fewer aches and pains, better posture, more focus and confidence, and being less thrown around by our emotions.’ The Big Issue, April 2015
Try taking a few minutes each day to breathe slowly and evenly, following the shape above if it helps. (You could even save the animation to your phone, or work computer and use it as part of your own first-aid kit for stress.) See if you can start to feel a difference in your yoga practice, or if you have started to catch yourself thinking about the quality of your breath in everyday scenarios (‘I’m breathing quickly as I dial this phone number’; ‘My breath is quite shallow as I butter this piece of toast’ and other glamorous situations etc).
Don’t get stuck thinking that you need to walk around counting your breath and berating yourself for breathing quickly, or mindlessly all the time. And definitely don’t start documenting your breath on YouTube. Breathing is automatic for a reason – we would be dead (or bored to death) if it wasn’t.