Listening to your breath will benefit your yoga practice!
How many times in a yoga class have we heard the teacher say ‘don’t forget to breathe’ when performing an asana (posture)? It seems counterintuitive to be reminded to do something so innate to our survival, yet most of us do not pay enough attention to our breathing habits. For example, have you ever unconsciously held your breath when facing a difficulty, or noticed that your breathing has been too shallow, leaving you with a feeling of light-headedness?
With beginners, attention to the breath is used to find steadiness in the postures and to bring focus to what the body is experiencing. Take Savasana, the resting pose performed at the end of class, when students are asked to breathe softly and gently to instill a sense of calmness and surrender. This simple instruction can assist students to stop their minds from wandering so that they can experience the stillness of this important pose, and therefore its benefits.
For more advanced students the art of breath control becomes a vehicle for stabilising the mind and finding freedom in the body during each practice. The breath is used to soften when hardness sets in, to extend when there is resistance, to explore when the mind and body become stuck. If you think of an asana such as Marichyasana 3 as an example, the breath becomes such an important tool in finding more room to turn the rib cage and find the twist.
Controlled breathing is learned by students through the regular practice of Pranayama where the focus is on the prolonged breath through inhalation (puraka), exhalation (rechaka) and retention (kumbhaka). Pranayama cannot be rushed, and indeed students may spend many years in the introductory phases of this practice before moving on to more advanced techniques. Pranayama is the pre-cursor to Pratyara, the withdrawal of the senses, which leads on to meditation.
B.K.S. Iyenger, in his book Light on Pranayama, advises that students should first be competent in performing a range of yoga asanas before attempting Pranayama because of the need for the lungs to be capable of the expansion needed to take on the extra air (up to six times that used during normal breathing). It is through the practice of Pranayama that one also learns to listen to the breath as while the ears remain passive, they remain alert to the vibrations of the breath. This then assists the student to sensitise him or herself to how the breath is affecting the mind during practice. See here Mr Iyengar performing the sound of Pranayama – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcPjvp4La8A