My teacher, Nancy Gilgoff says Pattabhi Jois emphasizes three elements of the breath, free breathing, loud breathing, and steady breathing.
Breathe as if your life depends on it!
Free breathing is one of the most fundamental aspects of practice. Free breathing means that there is a sense of ease expressed in the breath. This releases tension and frees the circulation of blood and energy in the body, flushing away stagnation, toxins and stiffness.
When we try to “control” our breathing, we often end up restricting our breath. When we restrict the breath it is as if we are sniffing the air in—this gets us very little oxygen for lots of effort, notice how when we sniff, we are pulling the air in. Also when breathing restricted we tend to have shallow breaths that stay in the chest area and we raise our shoulders as we inhale. With free breathing we feel expansion as we inhale (expansion in the ribs and chest area), air flows in our body freely—as if we are bypassing the nose and air is coming directly into our throat.
An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha (these are the pelvic and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire). The bandhas support free breathing. Creating inner lift with your bandhas, inhale pull upward from mula bandha and allow your ribs and chest to expand with your breath, relax your shoulders downward as you feel expansion. Exhaling use your uddiyana bandha to support the exhale, helping to empty the lungs for the next inhale. Pattabhi Jois says “without bandhas, breathing will not be correct”.
Loud breathing has an action at the throat similar to ujjayi pranayama. The sound is made by toning the back of the throat and epiglottis as if you were whispering the sound of ‘haaaaa’ in the throat – a breathy sound like the one made when you fog a mirror with your breath. The difference is Ujjayi sound is made while breathing through your nose on both the inhalation and the exhalation.
While making this sound, close your mouth, inhale and exhale through your nose, and feel the breath rise upward at the back of your throat. Once you understand how to work the throat, keep the throat the same and inhale making the same sound. BE CAREFUL NOT TO CONSTRICT THE THROAT SO MUCH THAT IT IMPOSES A PULLING OR LABORED FEELING ON THE BREATH. As you are working on the action at the throat, pay attention to making a doming effect at the top of the throat (much like when you yawn), so you are constricting the back throat and opening or relaxing the top throat, also a half smile helps to relax the soft palate and keep the feeling of ease in the breath.
The point of making the sound is not the sound itself, and a loud sound is not necessarily a sign of a good breath (although the sound does help us to listen to our breath and keep the mind focused). Its importance lies in the effects of the action at the throat, feeling your breath at the back of your throat activates the diaphragm. Helping us use the diaphragm to breathe instead of the external muscles (chest and intercostals).
- See how the action of breathing is much more in the diaphragm and back of the body, rather than the upper chest, and you have a feeling of expansion with the breath rather than ‘pulling’ at the breath. This expansive quality of breathing with the diaphragm is the essence of a good breath.
A good sound is thus an indication of both good alignment in one’s posture, and good and efficient action in one’s breathing.
Steady breathing means that our inhale and exhales are of the same length and depth, and the transitions between the inhales and exhales are smooth and strain free.
Normally our breath begins fast as we begin the inhale and then tapers off. Regulating the pace of each breath requires greater restraint at the beginning of each inhale because we tend to come into the inhale more quickly and then peter out at the end. By the same token, this demands greater effort at the end of each exhale, when we tend to slow down. Try to make the transition from the exhale to the inhale without speeding up the breath, so your inbreath and outbreath become relaxed and more equally relaxing.
Scientifically deep steady breathing has been proven to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure, and lower levels in the blood of the stress hormone, cortisol, resulting in lower risk of heart disease. Pattabhi Jois says “Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous systems.” (Excerpt from ayri.org -Ashtanga yoga research institute.)
Free breathing, loud breathing, steady breathing . . . placing your attention on these qualities during practice will put more yoga into your yoga 😉