The breath as one of the fundamental elements of any yoga practice. Breathing has an interdependency to the mind, body, and emotions, you being a movement. Through steady and correct breathing – concentration comes easily, posture becomes steady and benefits are multifold. The breathing in yoga can serve as a transformative mechanism to improve overall well-being for advanced and beginning practitioners alike.
Breathing in Ashtanga Yoga
The breathing technique employed in Ashtanga yoga is quite different compared to the usual, unregulated breathing as we do every day. Requiring the use of the mūla and uḍyāṇa bandhas, the technique completely alters the way our diaphragm moves. In order to explain the technique, it is vital to understand, at least conceptually, what bandha means.
Mūla Bandha…means lifting the anus up towards the navel. Uḍyāṇa bandha…means the lifting of the core muscles four inches below the navel.”
In my classes, I simply address Mūla Bandha as “squeezing” or “tightening the anus and Uḍyāṇa bandha drawing the lower waist in tightly by pushing the pelvic muscles upwards.” My students understand it well and do it correctly. The positive effects are evident.
In normal unregulated breathing without application of the bandhas, the diaphragm moves downwards and displaces the lower abdominal organs, causing the lower abdomen to protrude outward. In this kind of breathing, there is a very little lateral movement of the ribs with most movement seen in the abdomen.
The correct and simple method of breathing in Ashtanga Yoga:
“Free breathing with sound”- It means that we should not restrict the breathing channel in the throat, but instead let the breath flow easily in and out of the lungs. The soft sound that is sometimes heard comes from deep within the chest rather than from a restriction in the throat. (No Darth Vader breathing please!)
In practice, one should aim to keep the inhales and exhales the same length and of even intensity with a rhythm. When the breathing is correct, the āsana (posture) is correct. In other words, until the practitioner can breathe freely and without restriction in a particular āsana, he or she has not yet mastered that āsana. The quality of the breath and the quality of the mind are correlated. When breathing is smooth, deep and balanced, the mind tends to be calm and steady.
Benefits of breathing correctly in Yoga practice
The perfection of the breathing technique results in an efficient uptake of oxygen and the removal of carbon dioxide. The practice of even, smooth breathing also has a profound effect on the nervous system, helping to balance the highs and lows and bringing more stability physically, mentally and emotionally throughout the day. This results in greater clarity and calmness of mind, which is extremely important for success in yoga and life in general.
Prāṇāyāma, the fourth limb of Aṣṭāṅga, is the link from the first three limbs (yama, niyama, āsana) to the higher stages of consciousness. The method of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga first stabilizes the body and mind through the daily practice of these first three limbs with attention on deep and even diaphragmatic breathing, which is in itself a foundational prāṇāyāma.
More advanced breathing techniques are only introduced once the practitioner has become stable both physically, mentally, and emotionally through consistent practice over a long period of time (and should only be attempted under the guidance of a very experienced teacher.)
As Pattabhi Jois quotes a warning from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “Just as a lion, elephant or tiger may be gradually brought under control, so is prāṇā attended to, otherwise, it destroys the practitioner.” By first building a strong foundation in your practice with attention on correct breathing, the later limbs/ stages will unfold effortlessly and benefit you.