I always start my yoga classes with a short breathing/meditation practice, which doesn't go over well with some students. They are there to move and sweat above all else. That's okay with me. The more a student squirms through the centering practice, the more they need it. As we become centered and grounded at the beginning of class, we find our breath growing steady and even. We bring our hands to our hearts and make a memory of that sensation. We create the intention of maintaining that breath throughout the class. I remind the students that this breath is the foundation of your practice. No matter where you are or what you're doing with your body, if you're breathing with awareness and intention, you're doing yoga.
It's Good For Your Health
In yoga, we're working on the subtle body. This is a part of the body that can't be seen, and our breath, or pranayama, is an easy way to access it. If you go to a class where the teacher doesn't mention the breath much, you're missing out on one of the best parts of yoga--the opportunity to connect to yourself through your breath. It's also good for your health--yogic breathing calms the nerves and lowers blood pressure. Fresh oxygen fights inflammation and promotes physical health. The more deep, aware breathing we do, the better.
It Comes In Handy When You're In "The Real World"
Pranayama helps you through stress. I used to have a job that put me on edge on a regular basis. I would sit at my desk and calm myself down with slow, deliberate, ujayi breathing. In those moments I was more grateful than ever for my yoga practice--what would I have done if I hadn't been able to calm myself with yogic breathing? I have visions of myself spiraling into a pit of stress, or having public outbursts and confrontations. The breathing skills you learn on the mat go with you everywhere, and you never forget them.
How To Develop Your Pranayama Practice
When you're just starting out, seek out teachers who incorporate breath work into their classes. If you can't find any, try podcasts and websites. When you've learned the basics of yogic breathing, you can turn to the bible, Light on Pranayama. This one doesn't get as much attention as Light on Yoga, but it should. B.K.S. Iyengar put together over 250 pages of breathing techniques and practices. That alone shows that pranayama is nothing to sniff at. You're not going to master it in a couple weeks or months of practice, so now's the time to get started!
A Pranayama Exercise: Three-Part Breathing
Here's a simple exercise in Dirga, or Three-Part Breathing. You can do it seated upright or lying flat on your back. Imagine your whole torso, from your pelvic bone to your collar bones, is the container for you breath. Breathe in and fill the container only to your belly button. Pause. Breathe in and fill to your lower ribs. Pause. Breathe in again all the way to the collar bones, and take a longer pause. Now release the breath down to the lower ribs. Pause. Exhale to your belly button. Pause. Exhale completely, letting out all the air, all the way down to your pelvic bone. Take the same long pause you did at the top of the breath.
That's one round of Dirga. After one, you start again with the three-part inhale. You can start with 5-10 rounds and work your way up to more. If you feel discomfort and need to take a regular breath go ahead. You can do this practice anywhere in order to calm your body and mind.