When it comes to the breath, I’m not a very disciplined yogi.
Or at least, that’s what I think whenever I find myself next to an ashtangi who’s even 1:1 inhale:exhale purrs along steadily, pose after pose, sequence after sequence.
In ashtanga yoga (**the modern style of asana practice, not the yoga sutra's eight limbs), the steady ujjayi* breath during asana seems to be paramount. That's not not the case for me, but in my tradition of ISHTA yoga, doing what’s useful for the individual comes first, so there aren’t really any hard and fast rules that everyone observes, because, duh, we’re all a little bit different. And given my gut-driven fear of not doing things the way I’m supposed to, I am so much better off in environments where I’m asked to think for myself, not follow rules someone else sets down.
And while I do have a pretty strong control of my breath faculties, some days I’m a little bit jealous of the "ashtanga steady breath" discipline.
Why? What’s so great about breathing evenly?
I suppose nothing much, on its own. Many of us do it much of the day long… in those "normal" moments when we’re not stressed, anxious, depressed, racing about, or doing anything that feels like an "up" or a "down."
You know, normal!
So, how many of us have days —or yoga practices— that are mostly devoid of ups + downs? Heh, not this girl, that’s for sure. But that’s where the discipline of the breath can help.
Here’s how: let’s say you’re doing something that requires only about 50% of your attention, meaning you’ve done it many times before and it’s in the good ol’ "muscle memory" (**strong neural connections that fire without much executive oversight, not actually anything in your muscles).
During this routine task, what is your mind doing?
Whatever your mind is doing that's what your breath is mimicking. Like right now, writing this, I’m thinking about word choice more than I am breathing fully, because every. word. matters. (dammit.)
And if you’re flowing through your daily sun salutation but hemming and hawing about a work meeting, then it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re not enjoying your flow much... because you’re probably not breathing much!!!
Can we make a pact, just for a week, to breathe instead of think when doing something routine? It can be sun salutations, walking the dog, washing dishes— you pick. And since not thinking sounds impossible, as a compromise, let’s just pay attention to breathing.
Make your breath even (1:1 in:out) and it will be easier to come back to if/when you start thinking about something else.
More soon on the technical side of how this all works, but in short what we're practicing is using the breath to stay present in our awareness. That’s training us to have access to a calming breath, grounding breath, or even a get-up-and-go breath when we need it, for those moments when thinking smart and open is crucial.
It’s training us to use the breath to make our ups and downs a little less extreme, or maybe within our power to monitor and choose.
I think that's pretty friggin’ super.
** a double asterisk means "heads up, here comes a note for all you yoga geeks who, like me, appreciate the academic details." If that’s not you today, just skip over, I still love you!
* and a single asterisk means glossary term!
Ujjayi is a pranayama or conscious manner of breathing that is commonly used during yoga asana practice to encourage focus on the breath and steadiness of mind and body. It is a somewhat athletic breath practice and can be quite challenging to sustain during a full-body flow sequence in which you do not need to stop moving (like the sun salutation).
Now you want to learn ujjayi? I guess I will have to create that guide next 😉