If you or your students have trouble connecting with your breath, it is no surprise.
The hardest thing to “get” in a vinyasa yoga class is the breath connection whether you are holding a pose or moving from one to the next. Cuing and practicing the breath in and through postures is one of the hardest concepts to grasp.
The breath anchors our practice and once we understand this we can utilize it on and off the mat. If you came to your mat for the first time as a physical practice to get in shape; then it is usually the cultivation of breath awareness that calms the mind and brings that feeling of inner peace that keeps you here; again, the anchor of your practice.
My goal in this article and video is to bring awareness to your breath and give you a foundation to build upon as you practice and as you teach.
Follow these steps to cultivate your breath:
1. Just breathe
The first stage of awareness is just noticing your breath and realizing when you are holding it and when the instructor cues ``find your breath” and you realize you have stopped breathing completely. You have stopped breathing because you are in an uncomfortable shape or anxious to move on to the next posture. Holding the breath has the opposite effect of what we want yoga to bring to your life. Holding your breath or stressed shallow breaths are what we are trying to correct. Noticing this pattern in your practice is the first step to overcoming this tendency.
2. When to inhale and when to exhale
Inhale when you expand or lengthen the body (ie. Urdhva Hastasana or Mountain pose) and exhale as you fold or compress (ie. Uttanasana or forward fold).
My personal “Aha” moment happened when practicing breath connected movement during Surya Namaskar A or Sun A. Check out this video (Sun A starts at 16:13 minute mark) and practice until you can feel this in your body and mind. If you lose the breath along the way then, reset and repeat until you have it down.
In this video you will learn:
How breath connected movement feels in the body.
How to guide yourself and your students through Sun Salutations and feel the physical and mental benefits.
Practice breathing as you move into each posture cuing the part of breath and the name of the pose.
Another good practice to connect with your breath is to hold a pose.
For example in Virabhadrasana II or Warrior 2, practice the subtle movement with each part of the breath.
After you have set up the foundational pose; inhale as you lengthen the sides of the body and improve your posture, lifting your sternum.
On the exhale feel a surrender into the posture as you settle into the pose.
Repeat this for as many breaths as you want to hold the posture.
Find this connection and the subtle expansion on the inhale and settling into with more stability and intention on the exhale.
Each part of the breath has a purpose.
When you are ready to move onto the next posture connect to the breath and move into the next posture. For example: When moving out of Virabhadrasana II to Viparita Virabhadrasana or Reverse Warrior, cue: “stay here on the exhale and move into Reverse Warrior on the exhale- set this up for your students. Or, moving from Virabhadrasana II to Utthita Parsvakonasana or extended side angle, cue: stay here for the inhale and move into extended side angle on the exhale.
3. Breath in twisting postures
In twisting postures you will inhale as you lengthen to prepare for the twisting posture. It is very important to find length before coming into any twist to prevent injuring yourself. And, as in #2 above you can continue to lengthen as you inhale once you are in the pose. The exhalation comes when you are moving into the twist or deepening the twist once the pose foundation is set. It is much better to find a pose with less twist then compromising the spine by rounding to find a deeper expression.
For example: When I cue Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved Chair pose) we start with the foundation of Utkatasana or chair.
With hands to heart center start with an inhale as you lengthen your spine from tailbone to head.
Then exhale as you twist, bringing your elbow to the outside of the opposite thigh.
Keep refining the posture with each breath you hold or moving deeper by finding more space in your twist or opening the arms. Continue to inhale as you lengthen the spine and continue to exhale twist.
And, as in #2 set up the breath connection (inhale or exhale) before moving into the next posture.
Focusing on breath connected movement whether you are moving from one asana to the next or holding the asana will transform your practice. One of my favorite activities is writing Sun B flows. The first and sometimes the second time through a sequence, I guide my students through slowly fine tuning the posture and teaching breath.
Then, the next 2 to 3 times through the Sun B flow I teach the breath connected movement. Each posture has a part of the breath and we flow with muscle memory in and out of poses. Try this sequence to see what I mean. (The sun B sequence starts at 21:23 minute mark) Be sure to warm up properly on your own or warm up the entire class.
As you practice the breathing steps listed above, my hope is that you become more aware of your breath and have a foundation to build upon as you practice and as you teach.