Recently, a student asked me about breathing in yoga and mentioned that he couldn’t seem to sync with the breath flow set in classes. Instead his breaths were shorter than the pace the teacher guided.
I couldn’t help but think about similar moments in my early yoga experiences. When it came to following the pace my yoga instructors set in class, I thought I was a race horse. I couldn’t slow down on my yoga mat; I’d hurl my foot forward in lunges when the teacher was still cuing student to bring their knee to their nose. I’d do the standard vinyasa in half the time my surrounding yogis did them, i.e. I was the first person in Downward Facing Dog when people were still in Chaturanga. It was no surprise that I was often tired and out of breath after the warming sun salutations, just about 20-25 minutes into the class. Ironically, when I took my kickboxing classes, I usually felt like I moved like a turtle compared to the bullet-like speed of my instructors. The pace of their counts seemed so fast and challenging for me to keep up without passing out (Thankfully, I wasn’t planning to fight anyone, because I’m pretty sure I’d lose). It seemed like I was too fast for yoga, but too slow for kickboxing. In both examples, it was clear that endurance was not my strong suit, which was extraordinarily humbling.
Power To Breathe
Looking back now, I believe my breathing was the culprit. In kickboxing, I’d choke off my breath so often while I focused on keeping up with the pace that my body felt like jelly as I tried to jab and kick. In my Ashtanga classes, where breath cuing tends to be front and center with the postures, I’d find myself gasping long before the instructor signaled the next inhalation and movement. In both situations—in the gym and on the mat—my body was being deprived of oxygen, and ultimately strength and endurance.
It wasn’t until an observant yoga teacher offered a breathing technique to me, which I wrote about in another column on cultivating Ujjayi breathing, that my approach to breathing and fitness transformed. After that eureka moment, I realized that something as subtle as the breath was actually what drove my engine.
Are You Waiting To Exhale?
In short, breathing well means getting enough oxygen to nourish your body. When we have uneven or short breaths, we’re not getting as much oxygen into our bodies as we could. And with a limited source of oxygen, our bodies kick into stress mode, which is not a sustainable way of living in the long term, and can also make for frustrating experiences during our workouts.
In her book The Breathing Book, yoga teacher Donna Farhi skillfully describes several methods to strengthen the breath. I highly recommend her book to anyone with questions about this topic. Among some of the wisdom she offers, Farhi points out when we exhale more fully, this naturally leads to a deeper inhalation, which means a richer more efficient breath—one that doesn’t feel rushed or cut off too early.
If you experience shortness of breath on the mat, it might help to cultivate a complete and unhurried exhalation first. I often like to develop this awareness with Sama Vritti or Equal Breath practice. This simple technique for cultivating a healthful calming breath invites you to match the length of inhalation to the length of exhalation. From a comfortable seat, I start by silently counting to three or four when I exhale. I enjoy a natural pause after the exhale, and then gently match my inhalation to the same count as my exhalation. After several minutes of this exercise, I move into my asana practice feeling much calmer. And when I maintain this breath count through my first rounds of sun salutations, it invites a more meditative and powerful quality to my practice. Truthfully, it feels as though I’m stretching out time. I move with more ease and grace, and I no longer feel like the race horse on the yoga mat.
You Are How You Breathe
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once noted “He lives most life whoever breathes most air.” Breathing can indeed be a metaphor for our way of living. If you are challenged in your breath, think of that as an invitation to explore what might be challenging you in your life beyond the breath. As you commit to your exhalations, it can feel like you’re letting go of unnecessary attachments to make room for new experiences, i.e. the next rich inhalation. So breathe to your health!