As with many other things, breathing is something we take for granted. When we are healthy, it comes to us so naturally that we experience it as automatic and so think it does not need special attention.
But to the yogi, breath is life-force. In the seconds after birth a deep breath opened us out into life, and we will leave this Earth on the last exhalation. So the yogi measure life, not in hours, days and years, but in breaths.
In doing yoga postures – in fact, in everything we do – it is important to control our breathing so that we can get the full benefits of our actions.
This breath control, which becomes automatic with practice, is called ‘Pranayama’ from the Sanskrit words ‘Prana’ meaning life-force and ‘Yama’, meaning control.
Shallow or incorrect breathing is associated with hiccough, wind, asthma, coughing, catarrh and nervous irritability.
Since childhood most of us have heard about the value of filling our lungs with clean fresh air – something that is increasingly difficult for us to do in our polluted cities.
Yogis fill their lungs in a special way. They don’t simply gulp in great mouthfuls of air nor do they throw out their chests rapidly and force their lungs to expand as many of us do when told to breathe deeply.
Yogic breathing is done slowly and steadily, with a concentrated mind. Our facial, neck and shoulder muscles should be relaxed.
The breath is drawn in through the nose, not the mouth. The air is not sniffed in but rather drawn in gently through the nose. The back of the throat relaxes and expands slightly to create more space so that the air can pass into the lungs freely.
In the beginning of this practice you will know that you are drawing in the air correctly because there is a slight sound coming from the back of your throat as if a quiet wind is passing through reeds.
Instead of puffing out our chests, we should first expand our abdomens as we breathe in. This creates room below the lungs, so that they can fill systematically from the bottom up.
Once the lungs are filled, the breath is gently held for a moment, as if in a comfortable pause, before it is slowly released without any rush or strain. Again, with the lungs empty there is a pause before the next breath begins.
What helps is to establish a rhythm. One such rhythm is achieved through counting. The most well-known count is – breathe in for 4 counts – hold for 2 counts – breathe out for 4 counts – pause and relax for 2 counts.
I have only given you a rough idea of the basic yogic breathing. I have done this because when you do the yoga postures they are always accompanied with yoga breathing.
Correct yoga breathing really needs a teacher, to iron out your smaller faults and to help you perfect your technique. Nevertheless what I have described will not harm you as long as you remember not to force the breath and to do it rhythmically.
When your breathing is flowing we find it easier to get in touch with our bodies, our feelings and our thoughts. By allowing the life-force within the breath to flow through us we bring our individual lives into greater harmony with everything around us. Our minds become steady, our emotions are refined with a sense of calm and our lungs are assisted in their work of oxygenating and purifying our blood.
If you have read ‘About Miranda’ you will have noticed that she refers to her quest towards self-discovery beginning by sitting at Swami Venkatesananda’s feet in mid-1970. Although Swamiji is no longer with us we thought you might like to see a picture of what he looked like then when ‘Yoga with Wendy’ was first published.
What we like about this picture is that it wasn’t posed, yet it captures the essence of a man who was always ‘present’ in the ‘here and now’. His attention is fully focused on listening to the person opposite him. He looks comfortable with himself and in our opinion, fully alive.