Lesson 7 Module 2
The breath is the pivot point between the conscious and unconscious. It is influenced both consciously and via the autonomic functions of the nervous system. It is one of the rare functions which traverses all aspects of our biology.
When we breathe deeply in yoga we create positive emotion, we infuse fresh clean energy into our body and we extend our existence beyond the mundane. We connect with the trees, the animals, the human ancestors, the future humans. With every breath you are silently affirming your true nature as unified and loving.
The specific breath style we employ in yoga is called ujjayi, which means victorious! It is performed by creating a soft sound hissing or whispering sound in the back of the throat while breathing through the nose. It is important that both the inhale and exhale are performed through the nose – it is a beautiful habit to form. The nostrils filter and slow down the air, creating a tranquil focus in our mind. Please avoid mouth breathing, only use the nostrils.
Practice it a few times, pretend you are going to fog up a mirror, but use your nose rather than your mouth. Make a smooth hissing sound. This sound becomes our guide in the practice and in life, we use it to tell if we need to slow down, and we use it as a focal point during yoga to stabilise the mind.
Give the sound an even quality throughout the whole breath, both inhale and exhale. Lengthen each breath and deepen it. Breathe simultaneously into the sides of the ribs, the front of the ribs, the back ribs, and finally into the upper parts of the lungs. The rib cage will begin to exhibit a gentle pulsating movement, the muscles in between each rib (the intercostals) will be come flexible and your natural breath will become very easy.
A huge feature of listening to the sound of your own breath is that it draws your attention inward and away from the distractions of the outside world. Furthermore the sound of the breath can show us our attitude in each posture. At times it may sound short, laboured, strained, fast, or shallow. By bringing it back to the ideal of a smooth, pleasant sound we begin to correct any unhelpful or negative attitudes.
Our culture often facilitates an incomplete breathing pattern, either exclusively abdominal breathing due to a slouched postured, or excessive shallow chest-breathing related to anxious alertness. In yoga we correct any imbalance and breath deeply into the lower, middle, and upper portion of the lungs and ribs.
The ultimate purpose for developing this technique is to still the mind. The Yoga Sutras states very clearly that "yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind" and that "only when the mind is still can the seer be in their true nature".
The mind can be likened to a lake. If thought waves appear, the surface of the lake is disturbed and ripples appear. When you look at the lake you can only see a distorted representation of your appearance. This constant distortion is why we do not have a complete identification with our true selves and why we experience suffering.
When the thought waves have subsided and the surface of the lake of the mind becomes still for the first time, we can see who we truly are. In fact, we can achieve unfiltered identification of any object that we choose to look at.
The ancient yogis discovered that the mind and breath move together. Still the mind directly is seen to be difficult, but through directing the breath it can be achieved much more easily. Extending the breath to be longer and longer through your yoga practice accelerates your capacity even more.
Finally, remember this about combining movement and breath: the breath leads the movement. Rather than following and responding to the breath the breath should initiate the movement. By prioritising this way, we will be moved by the breath like the autumn wind picking up leaves.