I don't think I have touched on the breath much yet. I know I've talked briefly about the ujjaiyi breath, that audible whisper that becomes a mantra during the ashtanga practice, but I don't think I've talked about the breath proper. I think this would make a great topic for this week.
What do we know about the breath? We know that the breath is the foundation of practice. When we inhale, we expand into the pose. When we exhale, we contract into a pose. Think about Surya Namaskar A (sun salutation A):
Inhale - arms come overhead and we are lifing through the sternum.
Exhale - we swan dive into our forward fold.
Inhale - we are looking up at the horizon, lengthening our spine
Exhale - lowering ourselves to the ground
Inhale - lifing into Adho Mukha Savasana (up dog)
Exhale - folding into down dog
Inhale - brings us back to our feet and lenghtening our spines again
Exhale - forward folding
Inhale - reverse swan dive, arms over head, chest exhanding
Exhale - samastihi
Each pose in the yogic tradition follows the movement of the breath, be it the mindful movement of an Iyengar or Hatha practice, the spiritual nature of Kundalini, or the flow of vinyasa or ashtanga.
But there is more than just inhaling and exhaling. There are 5 qualities to good breathing (Mastering Yoga Basics, pg 64).
The breath should be deep, but not forced.
The breath should be smooth, without strain.
The breath should be even, the inhales and exhales the same duration.
If using the ujjaiyi breath, the sound should be full.**
The breath should be with out pause, exhale rolling right into the inhale.
**In some practices, the breath would be silent.
We also tend to do a fair amount of twists in the Vinyasa and Ashtanga practice, which can make it hard to breath. But remember! You can breath from more places than just the abdomen! Expansion can be found front to back, from side to side, and up and down. Experiment sometime, move into Marichyasana C asana and try breathing from the sides of the ribs, from the back of the ribs and from the upper part of the ribs.
Here is a good technique for building breath awareness that also can help tone the abdominal muscles. **Please, don't do this if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, circulation concerns from a past stroke or heart disease, or if you have or had an anurisium.**
Take a 5lb bag of rice. Lie in savasana and breath through your diaphram. Most people do this automatically when they are resting on their backs. Now slide the bag of rice on to your abdomen and just breath. Feel the slight pressure of the rice, feel the bag rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. After a few moments, slide the bag off and just breath with the lingering sensation of weight. Observe how it feels.
With practice and time, you can increase the time and weight gradually, but not more than 20lbs. (That's a lot of rice...)
Wow, who would have thought there was this much to breathing?! Remember, let the breath unfold, just like your practice.