Originally written by Zara M on 04 December 2013
When I pay attention to my breathing during a yoga practice, the sensation I experience after inhaling and then exhaling is almost akin to melting into each yoga posture. Consciously breathing allows me to move my body deeper into the pose, and this is what we were exploring in the yoga class last weekend as we flowed through our sequences.
Breathing is often thought of as one of the most important aspects of yoga, yet it is something that I often forget to pay attention to, because my mind is preoccupied with other things; like perfecting a physical posture, keeping up with the class, or trying to remember whether I should be inhaling or exhaling at any particular moment. The thing about breathing in yoga though is that it actually helps to clear your mind, it helps your body to relax into each pose, and it helps to energize the body by bringing in fresh oxygen. So if you are not breathing properly, you are in fact working against your self.
I have also read that it can be useful to use your breath when practicing yoga sequences as a kind of metronome that guides you in and out of each pose in the sequence. When I practice this in the class my sequences flow much more smoothly and feel more natural because my body is being prepared at each stage with my inhalations and exhalations so that it is not tense and I am not struggling against my own muscles. I can flow through each pose with ease. Our instructor also calls out instructions as to whether we should be inhaling or exhaling. If we are paying attention and following, there is no need for confusion, and the breathing provides structure and rhythm for the sequence as a whole.
I talk about breathing like I’m a pro, but the reality is a little bit different. Conscious breathing isn’t something that comes naturally, especially when you are a beginner yogi. A lot depends on your state of mind and the way you approach the session. Sometimes I feel much more receptive to the yoga class because I have entered in a peaceful and focused state of mind, and other times I feel that I struggle. I think that being able to clear your mind through the breathing exercises at the beginning of a session helps to bring your mind and body into the ‘present’ state that is necessary for practicing yoga.
I have been thinking about how a yoga session may actually begin, in a mental sense anyway, before you have even arrived at the class! Often I don’t give myself enough time beforehand, and so I find myself rushing which does little to help calm the body and mind. I will be on the bus filling my mind with negative thoughts about being late, and then I will be rushing down the street towards the gym and speeding up my heart rate, which is counterproductive to relaxation. When I arrive at a yoga class early on the other hand, I eliminate all of this, plus I have time to get myself into the right state of mind by sitting on the mat in quiet contemplation while others are arriving. This doesn’t happen very often! It may all sound obvious, but when living a fast-paced city lifestyle, slowing down can be a somewhat alien concept.
Breathing is also an important part of dancing Tango. Sometimes we are so focused on getting our dancing technique right that we forget to pay attention to our breath. It is when we stop breathing that things begin to fall apart though. It is important to maintain steady breathing when dancing because you are moving and using all the energy you are taking into your body. If you don’t breathe properly then you get breathless which will inevitably affect your dancing, your grounding and the connection with your partner.
I find that when I lose my connection with a partner during a dance I have to slow down and reconnect – whether my partner is in the middle of a fast little number or not. If I don’t slow down and take the time to re-ground and reconnect, then I usually end up tripping over myself, or him, and I only become even more jittered. I slow down by taking a deep breath in and out until I feel unflustered, comfortable in the embrace and ready to resume. The same applies to yoga. When you find that you are struggling to hold a pose because it is uncomfortable, you are unbalanced or your body is not relaxed enough, taking a moment to either breathe into the pose to relax the muscles which are tense, or alternatively coming out of the pose altogether to re-establish your breathing and alignment does wonders. You should never feel rushed in yoga or tango. It is all about savoring the moment.
I think that it is easy to put too much pressure on oneself and think that if we don’t get something right the first time that we have failed, or that if we don’t maintain some thing we perceive as success, such as dancing to the end of a song without losing the connection with a partner, that we are not good enough. Then we only end up struggling. Struggle is not what yoga or tango is about though. It is all meant to be about enjoyment and feeling good, and there is nothing wrong with pausing to focus on the quality of what we are doing rather that pushing ourselves through to get to the end. There is no end, only the present. Breathing is what brings us into this present space.
I noticed while dancing at a Milonga recently, that when I pay attention to my breathing during a dance my movements feel much more organic, and I feel more connected with my partner. It is quite surprising, when you start to pay attention, how often you end up holding your breath while dancing! You can use your breath to assist in extending your movements though, especially dissociation and twists. I discovered that paying attention to my breathing brought my attention more to establishing a much firmer, solid and yet flexible chest-chest and body-to-body connection with my partner, which is something I often, struggle to maintain. My boyfriend is always telling me to be ‘Superwoman’ and give him more ‘chest’ in my embrace, rather than cowering away, and I have always found it quite difficult. Perhaps the difficulty has stemmed from feeling like I need to hold my breath to maintain the physical connection once my chest is filled with air. I feel that the yogic breathing exercises have provided me with a bit of an ‘aha!’ moment though, because when I exhale all the air out of my body I have learnt how not to let my chest collapse at the same time by releasing the air from my lower stomach first, which helps with posture. I don’t know if he feels the difference, I haven’t asked him for fear of it all being in my imagination, but I certainly do!