What’s the Deal about Five Breaths?

Via Emily Alp
on Jul 27, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

Photo: judepics

What’s the big deal about five breaths?

I mean, how do you explain this five count of yoga teacher? Is it that they like to hear their own voices? Or more to the point, do they enjooy seeing your veins pop out of your forehead as you grimace?!

Let’s put those perfectly normal yet dubious theories aside and assume tradition has something to do with it. And what is that tradition about? I wonder. Here’s one idea that came to me lately.

If you look at each Asana, you can say there is a life in each one. It’s the same Asana yet all new, every day, if you want it to be.

You inhale and are “born” into it right before exhaling into its “infancy.” There you are in this position and what to do? Do you have a choice? Seems the choice was already made: you are alive. Inhale aaaand exhale.

You are now a “teenager,” and as the teacher calls out “twoooo,” you confidently strive forward, grasping, reaching, pushing, flexing, balancing, focusing, pulling anything you can with the arms and shoulders. Totally enraptured by the ego and how you look from the outside, you think: “my approach to this is quite unique and noteworthy, who’s watching me?”

Here comes “adulthood,” when you know better, or you think you are wise, but then realize you are not quite wise yet but you’re getting there and proud that you don’t act too proud.

As the teacher says “threeeee,” you notice you’re hiking up your shoulders in Trikonasana. “Holy crap,” you think, “this is a standing pose, and I’m way too experienced to think my shoulders will get me anywhere with this–byebye shoulders, squeeze perineum and I’m so proud of myself for using that word and also ‘Mula bandha’ … gosh, all that time wasted with the shoulders; anyway, I forgive my ‘inner child.’”

Inhale four—you just entered a crisis. I mean, the teacher doesn’t even say four. You panic. You came all this way and there’s still a ways to go and yet you wonder: “Does the teacher know we are seriously suffering? Can’t they hear us gasping, see our eyes darting? What is this all about?”

It’s too late, and you can’t afford to care anymore because your body is making all these demands—something’s tight, some joints are stiff, you’re off balance, you feel weak, you wonder what you’ll eat when this is all over, you feel regretful thinking that, you’re vulnerable, exacerbated, bewildered and humbled by the challenge as you push past the midlife crisis into “old age.”

Suddenly, like a call from the heavens “fiiiiiiiiiiiiiive,” and you realize in fact you are totally in love with the teacher again. What was once abysmal hatred has transformed to blissful adoration! You lift your head a bit and suck in that last moment as the mind lets go of its mantra of suffering. You’ve pretty much made it to the end of a long and productive Asana life.

You bask in that last moment of the Asana and tune into a birdcall. The most important thoughts involve warm mittens and whiskers on kittens before you exhale and pass away.

Trikonasana on the other side,” comes the call.  Your teacher looks familiar—what was her name again?




About Emily Alp

Emily Alp spent the early part of her life sick and passionately searching for ways to improve her health. She is a certified health coach specializing in autoimmunity, and celiac and gluten intolerance. She recently co-authored a best-selling book entitled One Crazy Broccoli, as a guide to working through a range of health obstacles to reach a state of health and balance. She is a former martial artist and marathoner, and she has been practicing various forms of yoga for more than 15 years and is a 500+ RYT who is passionate about holding space for, sharing insights with, and learning from students. She spends time as often as she can with her yoga teacher to hone her asana and pranayama practices. Since the age of 15, Emily has also been studying astrology and has run and analyzed charts for friends, family, and clients with much success in assisting conscious breakthroughs and providing a sense of empowerment with this healing art form. She was born in the United States, and she has spent a quarter of her life as an expat and is now traveling the world, freelancing, coaching, teaching, loving, and going with the flow to find her next "nesting spot." To connect, visit her website.


13 Responses to “What’s the Deal about Five Breaths?”

  1. marc says:

    Nice post, but my understanding is that its about the length of time it take a muscle to relax and stretch.
    When you stretch a muscle it will automatically contract to protect itself from injury.
    If the stretch on the muscle is constant then the muscle will start to relax after about 15 – 20 seconds. (there's an anatomical term for this but I've forgotten)
    Those five breaths bring you beyond that point, so you can fully stretch the muscle and gain further flexibility through consciously relaxing and keeping the pose stable.

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Emily – thanks for this. I have often experienced a bit of this especially with teachers that like to for some reason make extra counts – four and a half, four a three quarters…ah! 🙂

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  3. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. Claudia says:

    The five breaths in the Mysore tradition used to be eight, so I guess we are lucky that these days it is only five… not only that but some poses are not just poses but mudras (i.e. paschimotanasana) so in the tradition of Krishnamacharya (Ashtanga included) these poses are held even longer… you probably do not like navassana I suppose, wonder how you deal when you teach it in your Mysore room… it is a hard one to maintain!!!

  5. Rudy Mettia says:

    I once and a while will breakout the 20 breath 1/2 moon. Thanks for the reminder as I may break out the 20 in my masterclasses at Kripalu this weekend.

  6. Ashtangi says:

    You should not call yourself a certified Ashtanga teacher if you haven't been certified by KPAYI. It's misleading and a little bit dishonest.

  7. NotSoSure says:

    You should not accuse others of dishonesty until you improve your reading skills. Her profile said she is a certified teacher who teaches ashtanga. It does not claim she was certified by KPAYI. Also, a KPAYI is not a prerequisite to teach ashtanga or any style of yoga.

  8. Anon says:

    Is KPAYI the only 'authority' of Astanga asana yoga, only they have the monopoly on giving out these teaching certificates?

  9. […] carrier who handed me a check for a substantial sum, so chewed up I knew no bank would cash it. After a calming breath, I acknowledged his own displeasure at the check’s condition and, in that same place of inner […]

  10. emilyalp says:

    Navasana is the first pose I ever did. It is my favorite and I am grateful to it for being my intro to Yoga so I tend to favor and hold it a while. That said, I have to try not to smile too much when I teach it because everyone else hates it. What I do is gauge the class–if I see a lot of grimacing, I make the last one a bit shorter. If you are evolving your Mysore practice, there are always some new, challenging poses that require extreme focus on four and five–particularly second series ones for me right now:)

  11. emilyalp says:

    I'm sorry, I don't know what KPAYI is. I am Yoga Alliance certified, 300 hours. I am not claiming to be an expert of anything … just sharing a perspective–thanks!

  12. emilyalp says:

    I am hoping there can be an infinite number of perspectives on the five breaths. I just offer one. Yours is absolutely valid in my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

  13. yogiclarebear says:

    I love this, how did I miss it!? This one had me smiling big. Thanks Emily.