Breathing New Life into Yoga Practice

Charlene talks us through how she revitalised her breath and found a new lease of life in her practise.

The breath is the bridge between the mind and body, it’s supposed to be the place we tether our awareness as we move through the asanas. When practising a familiar sequence such as Ashtanga, the ujjayi breathing can be maintained even when the mind ventures off away from the practice and to matters off the mat.

Barring those postures that we find to be difficult, more often than not the habit of ujjayi is being performed, not the conscious following and manipulation of the breath. As such, the asana and the breathing becomes mechanical, the practice loses its vitality and it becomes stale. Well, that’s what happened to me.

I’d reached a point in my practice where new postures didn’t excite me, completing Intermediate was possible but I had no passion. Primary was becoming a chore, almost like domestic drudgery in the upkeep of Charlene, and sometimes I really had no idea how I found myself in Janu Sirsasana B. I was ujjayi breathing, but I was almost on autopilot, not actively participating. I was most definitely in a rut, or to use the yogic term, in my very own Ashtanga ‘samskara’.

Through the compassionate teachings of Ashtanga founder, Krishnamachyra, and his son, TKV Desikachar, I have begun to climb out of my rut and smooth the grooves of habitual practice through breathing techniques. Whilst Desikachar follows in his father’s belief that practice should be individualised, thus systems such as Ashtanga being inappropriate, I have set forth and incorporated such techniques into my systematic practice. I am amazed at how I am literally breathing new life into postures I have practised 1000s of times.

Following the journey of my breath, I am witnessing that I am less likely to be lost in an internal dialogue, and am better able to observe myself in the posture. Using the breath as the starting point, I actively tailor it for even the most subtle of postures to amplify its effect, and my bandhas are naturally engaged which results in more strength and stability in traditionally ‘flexi’ postures such as Paschimottanasana.

Also, rather than waking up in the morning with aches from the previous day’s Intermediate practice, my body feels at ease, there’s very little tension. Above all else, I’m better able to distinguish between over excitement (raga) and laxity (tamas), simply inhaling, pausing and observing, before exhaling and deciding the next steps.

The ujjayi breathing is no longer mechanical, it is slowly becoming a bilateral relationship, a feedback loop that reports on what is happening beneath the surface. Relying solely on ujjayi breathing wasn’t enough to break through deeper habits, and indeed those that the breathing and practice itself had created.

Like other visceral functions (digestion, endocrine, and cardiovascular) of the body, breathing is automatic, however, it is unique in that it can also be voluntarily controlled through techniques. For example, taking a few deep breaths in a stressful situation instantly slows down the excited sympathetic nervous system, and yoga takes this further with breathing techniques that are part of Pranayama, the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga.

As it is often said, the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are not meant to be practised in a sequential fashion, or designated a special time and place. Personally I’ve always been interested in how I can merge those techniques that I find useful rather than compartmentalising, so incorporating simple Pranayama exercises into my asana practice feels quite natural. Whilst I’m certainly not taking 30 second breath retentions, I am mindfully extending the pause to observe the spaciousness in the posture, as opposed to confining this to Padmasana.

The possibilities do feel quite endless, it’s like discovering hidden treasure in my very own garden! As a student I’m empowered by the new exploration of the Ashtanga practice, and as a teacher, I’m excited to share with students how they too can amplify the postures’ physical and mental effects for the overall benefit of their yoga path. It would be great to hear about your experience with breath and practice, so do get in touch.