Confessions of a yoga teacher, part 2: Am I breathing?

Breathing exercises, pranayama, breath awareness are all essential parts of a yoga practice.




Now we all know that it's important to breath properly. For a start, if you stop, you will die.

Well, actually, some hardcore legendary yogis could slow down their breathing to the point of 'human hibernation'.

In 1837 one such Yogi underwent a forty day live burial at the court of the Maharajah. But let's not try this at home.

There are plenty more accessible breathing exercises that promise a range of health benefits - like improved energy levels, hormone balancing, digestive health, clearer thinking, better sleep.

To name just a few. And the list of different breathing exercises you can practice is as long as my very stretched yoga arm.

But I can't say that my experience of 'doing' breathing exercises in yoga has been all that enjoyable.

My mind wanders, I get bored, I get out of breath, I think "I must be missing some important piece of this exercise because I don't feel all that great really".

So I have been 'doing' my yoga breathing for years, hoping that one day something will happen and I will 'get it'.

Then very recently something did happen and I got it ... I stopped 'doing' the yoga breathing exercises. But I did keep breathing ... obviously! (I'm not writing this from a hole in my garden).

I learnt something from Lisa Peterson, a brilliant Yoga teacher, in Dublin recently - that all the effort I was putting into 'doing' the breathing was reducing my awareness and creating tension.

When I stopped trying so hard and just focused on what was happening, I felt and learnt so much. But most importantly I enjoyed it and it felt good.

But is this allowed? To get something and feel good without making an effort? But if I don't make an effort then I will never improve, I will never be better, I will never be good enough...

Oh crap. Yes here I am again, trying to be better.

The thing that all the yoga breathing exercises have in common is the attention that you pay to your breath.

Where they vary is the specifics of the techniques. So, being human, we rush to master and control the technique, to do it and 'nail' it!

In these exercises there are also parts that involve controlling, holding or forcing the breath.

This can be interesting and helpful if you have a regular healthy breath in the first place.

But controlling and holding already shallow and restricted breathing will just create more tension and reinforce bad habits.

In this struggle to master and control, to hold or force, we lose the most precious thing of all - awareness.

Awareness is what gives life its light and gives every moment context and perspective. By bringing awareness to what you are doing, you move from an abstract distant place of thinking and struggle. To a real moment of breathing and being.

Regularly coming back to just observing the breath with clear awareness is where the real learning and healing lies. In every one of us is a healthy, healing, unrestricted breath that most of all, just needs to be noticed.

So right now I am practising undoing.

I'm sure it won't be long before I close alternate nostrils or breath out of my nose in rapid noisy succession! But maybe when I come back to these techniques, I will work less and feel more.

Maybe this might filter into the rest of my life.

What would it feel like to just be with my family without the heavy pressure of trying to 'get it right'?

How lovely it would be to go for a swim and just feel the water passing over my body, without trying to remember how many lengths I have done. Maybe, just sometimes.

So join me and try just sitting and noticing your breath.

In a comfortable, upright position for a few minutes, close your eyes and notice how your breath effects the different parts of your body, from your neck and shoulders down to your belly and hips.

Don't try and make your breath do anything. Just see if you can feel your breath in lots of different parts of your body.

'Feeling' it might mean you can notice a rise and fall of movement, or a rocking or swelling feeling, you might be able to pick up on lightness or heaviness or a sense of dull or bright.

Or you might notice nothing and that's also important.

All this observing, feeling and noting is essentially what 'pranayama' is.

The simple act of noticing your breath is one of the most powerfully healing tools you have at your disposal.

When we connect our mind, body and breath in a very simple quiet way, we are choosing to direct our attention back to ourselves, instead of outwards on everything and everyone else.

This attention to what’s going on inside us is truly the best thing we can do for ourselves.

But it's also the hardest, which is why we complicate it and avoid it.

Moving and breathing can be another way to get to know this essential part of yourself.

(In further articles we will work more with the breath and how it effects and enables different positions in your yoga practice).

For now, try working with Cat and Cow pose, as this is a great way to feel the natural way that the breath and the body move together.

Picture 1: 'All 4's'

On all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Feel the ground beneath you as you gently press down.

Keep your spine neutral as you bring your attention to the feeling of your breath in your belly. Notice how your tummy relaxes down on the inhale and contracts back up on the exhale.

Now, try working with the ground for support in your movements. On the inhale, gently but firmly pull the ground towards you, and on the exhale push the ground away. Feel how this pulling and pushing the ground sends a movement up through yours arms and into your spine.

Picture 2: 'Cow'

Keeping in mind that this is essentially a breathing exercise, make your breath your main focus.

On the inhale, let your back dip down as your reach back through your tailbone and reach up through the crown of your head.

You should feel a tightening in your back muscles and a stretching across your belly and chest.

Picture 3: 'Cat'

On the exhale, round your spine upwards, directing your tailbone and head down, you should feel a tightening in your belly and chest and a stretching across your spine.

Continue to move and breathe in this way. If anything hurts, then stop.

See if you can let your body move in time with your breath. Start with little movements and small, gentle breaths.

Then, as your breath starts to deepen and lengthen, encourage your movements to mirror this deepening.

Your spine curves more, your hips and shoulders flex and stretch more deeply, in keeping with your deeper breath.

Then let your breath become smaller and lighter and reduce your movements too, until you are back to just feeling your belly moving up and down with your gentle, relaxed breath.

Jessica Hatchett is a yoga therapist in West Cork.

Her next retreat is on 13th-15th Sept in Dzogchen Beara.

* To book your place, or to find out more about Jessica Hatchett's yoga classes, workshops and retreats, see: www.yogawestcork.com

* Photography: www.luluask.co.uk

* Part 1: Confessions of a yoga teacher...



Lifestyle

Derval O'Rourke's tips on how to be healthy at Christmas

How to cook the traditional festive feast this Christmas

Vintage View: The world’s most iconic and influential mouse

Wish List: Classy place-setting to cute snowmen to get through the shortest days

More From The Irish Examiner