Breathing Easy

20 Apr

The owners of a yoga studio I work at recently circulated a memo to their teachers about the disruptive breathing issue. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the wheezing, sighing, moaning, groaning, gasping, panting and sputtering that comes up from time-to-time in every yoga studio environment. It’s the commotion that makes other students roll their eyes and wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a good yoga DVD. Now, I like to hear a steady flow of breath in the room when I practice (it’s one of the things that makes group practice so sweet) but I agree it shouldn’t sound like the Dark Lord has taken up residence on the mat next door. Here are my two cents on the issue for both students and teachers.

I feel the breath is very much the sacred heart of our practice. Attention to the breath and the subtleties of the energetic body is what transforms what we do from calisthenics into something so much more.

Yogic breath typically flows in and out through the nose. Why? Because when you breathe through the nose, the air is warmed, moistened and filtered. That’s a good thing. Also, mouth breathing tends to be a less conscious way of sucking oxygen. When we are overly exerted, we automatically hunch over, open our mouths, and come into something called clavicular breathing (also known as panic breath). You regularly encounter this kind of breathing on the basketball court and at the ends of races. When we breathe consciously, on the other hand, we shift the control of the breath from the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system up to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher level reasoning.

Ujjayi breath is a special technique used during certain yoga asana practices. The basic technique involves bringing a slight engagement to the glottis so the air current is regulated as it flows through the throat. It’s an effective way to work with the breath’s duration and texture, and it makes the breath both a fluid guide for movement and an object of meditation. As beginners, we turn the volume up on the breath so we don’t forget it’s there, but as advanced practitioners, we breathe a more subtle and refined kind of ujjayi.

Some students groan and vocalize as they breathe due to simple inattention. In these cases, teachers can remind the whole room to “keep the voice out of the breath.” It’s a quick and easy instruction that everyone can benefit from.

Other students seem to go out of their way to make the breath noisy due to a misunderstanding of what a yogic breath should sound like. A little talk on making the ujjayi sound more subtle and sophisticated may do the trick. And if students don’t respond to the idea that a refined ujjayi is actually more advanced than a thunderous one, teachers can underscore the fact that excessive contraction of the glottis in a forced ujjayi breath can cause harm to the structures of the throat and strain the voice in the long-term.

Last but not least, the sound of the breath in the room is an important guide for us teachers. If the whole room is doing lamaze breathing, it might be a sign that we’re pushing the group too hard and fast under the circumstances. The temperature in the room, the day of the week, the time of the day, the barometric pressure, the level of studentship and a myriad of other factors determine what is appropriate for a given class. As teachers who aspire to be sensitive and responsive we need to remain open what comes up in the room. Sometimes the correct action is to depart from the game plan and slow things down rather than asking students to keep it quiet.

4 Responses to “Breathing Easy”

  1. Brian April 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Great post…and timely! My current teacher stresses that we should aim for “Ujjayi-like” breath, not full Ujjayi…I think Richard Freeman called it “oceanic”. I know when my breath sounds like soft, steady waves on the shore that I’m in a good place in my practice. If you’ve ever been to a Bikram class, it sounds like a TB ward…not very soothing!

    • Padmani April 22, 2012 at 1:04 am #

      What a nice word, “oceanic”–thanks for sharing Brian! Richard Freeman is such a special teacher. Juicy and brainy, you can’t get better than that!

  2. Ah, precious breath of life! When completing my 1st YTT at Esther Myers years ago, I wrote a research paper on–well–breath of course (Pranayama – how to practise it and how to share this practice with others), I had to dig deep into my own experience when healing myself from three major health challenges. As I was bed-ridden and could not do anything else, I used only pranayama and learned the inner and outer works of my breath intimately. I have since taken “pranayama workshops” and flipped through tons of pages of books on breath and breathing. While the emphasis is generally on “inhale in with the nose, exhale with the nose” and, yes, a sweet and steady Ujjayi often emerges from a deliciously deep practice, I encourage students to practise authentically by allowing an occasional “sigh of relief” especially when it comes from the depth of their existence. I also encourage the class to accept this “different kind of breathing”, perhaps not a bonafide pranayama, as a practice in vairagya. Abhyasa and vairagya, as we all know, are the two core principles on which the entire Yoga system rests. Expecting others to breath a certain way–all the time–is like expecting the air to only flow to a certain direction (which is rather futile 🙂 That said, I concur with your concluding paragraph in this blog entry, Pamani. Love, s-xx

  3. Nora Reda May 6, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    Thanks for this very concise, beautifully written account on the breath! I once read that ujjayi should diminish in strength and, consequently, in sound, as we mature as practitioners. Do you know what’s funny? At the beginning of my teaching years I could actually sound it for them but today, even if I try to show my students how they should sound, I fail miserably because if I really want them to hear, I’m straining to produce the sound and I catch myself trying to make them do something I myself don’t even do. It’s all in our minds that the breath has to sound like a steamer for it to be effective. After all, the breath is the music to our practice only we ourselves need to hear and as it is, it should be as unique and personal as our practice itself. Even though, time to time, the need still arises to ask the group to give freedom to their breath or, conversely, to quiet it down. Like music, it has to be just the right volume for us to enjoy, and the grace of our dance depends on the level of this joy.

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