I have been lucky enough to have 18 wonderful new students to yoga sign up for a six week beginner’s course with me this month.
This feels like a huge honor and privilege—but where to start?
Breath. The breath seems like the most obvious place to start, yes?
Okay so do we start with abdominal breathing? Diaphragmatic breathing? Three part yogic breath? Breathing through the nose? Do we count, lengthen or deepen the breath? When do we introduce Kapalabhati? Nadi Shodana?
I decided that we actually needed to go even further back than this.
I imagined someone coming to class who held tension in the chest, anxiety in the belly and had never given much thought to how and where they were breathing at all. I’d then ask this already tense person to breathe into the belly, expand the rib cage, pause at top of inhale, fully exhale—all seemingly simple and non controversial cues, right?
Well, these would be useful instructions if laid over the top of a relaxed and open body.
However if these blue prints for breathing are laid over a tense body and longstanding unconscious holding patterns, they may not be so useful at all. Asking a new already nervous, tense and anxious body to essentially control and manipulate its breath might add tension to tension and create more holding patterns.
Not quite the point of yoga really is it?
We need to explore how to undo all tension and holding patterns in the body first before attempting to do any kind of controlled breath practice. Even just breathing through the nose or into the abdomen could be a controlled breath practice, if this is not how your body is naturally breathing already. So I decided for the first week not to ask them to do anything with the breath at all except observe how it existed already.
Pranayama is the restraint or control of the breath.
I like to imagine pranayama as the guiding of prana, like a river around the body on the breath.
Prana is the life force energy carried on the breath (as well as in food and sunlight). If we free up the body and find our natural relaxed breath, can we then start to mold, direct and channel prana around the body using the breath and bandha.
If we jump right in trying to channel a river that has existing blockages and debris kicking about, we are probably just creating more problems for the flow.
Thanks to Donna Farhi’s brilliant Breathing Book for its inspiration and guidance, I started the first of our sessions trying to observe the existing breath as it already is and undo any tension and holding patterns.
Before starting your next yoga practice (no matter how experienced a yoga practitioner you are) take five to 10 minutes lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Try the following inquiry into your existing breath:
1. Where is the inhale initiated from and where does it go? Where is the exhale initiated from and where does it leave? (You’re not trying to do anything, just observe.)
2. What words or qualities would you use to describe your breath right now in this moment? (For example smooth, jagged, soft, uneven, quiet, loud, strained, disjointed, balanced, etc.)
3. How does the body change shape on the inside with every inhale and exhale? What parts of the body expand, lengthen, soften (if any) with each round of breath?
4. Can you feel any movement of the spine and pelvis with each breath? If not, see if you can drop the weight of the pelvis down into the floor, relax the belly and observe again.
5. If the breath had a colour, texture or elemental quality what would it be?
Enjoy experiencing the wave of breath as it is before starting to control and direct the flow.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman