The Asana Practice, a Teacher of Breath

The Asana Practice, a Teacher of Breath

The Asana Practice, a Teacher of Breath

Marek Łaskawiec: My son saw me once practicing yoga. After the practice he came to me and said: “I understand the flexibility and strength stuff but why do you have to breathe so loudly?” What would be your answer? 

David Garrigues: There are different ways of answering this question. Yoga is meditation. It is about creating awareness of being in the moment. It seems such a basic thing. However, when you start to explore consciousness, you realize that it is a rare event to be in a present moment, that we are always distracted. So you have to use what is available to jog yourself into the moment. And breath is an amazing thing. You do it 21,600 times in 24 hours. Breathing is something that is constantly going on. It is always there. It is a manifestation of life. It is like the ocean with its ebb tides and flow, its waves. And on these waves you see a jellyfish, which is also undulating. Everything has this pulse and rhythm – the whole universe. And the breath is this most basic rhythm of life that is taking place in your chest. That is why it is such a great tool for coming up to the present moment. That is why you grab on to it as anyone doing a meditation practice of any kind. And you make sound with the breath because this rhythm is hiding – you do it to overcome its atrophy. When we are distracted and when we are not in the moment, we do not breath well. I am not sure if this is true but they say that we use only one sixth of our lung capacity. When we are breathing properly there is this muscular churn to move, like the breath is a piston in action. But this atrophies, we don’t use it. We barely breathe in, we barely breathe out. When we breathe consciously, when we make this sound, we automatically use more of the breath capacity. The sound makes you breathe out more and breathe in more. But this sound also makes your kid say “What is that?”

Marek Łaskawiec: Why do we combine asanas with breath? Wouldn’t it be enough to do asanas separately and then just sit down and do some breathing? 

DG: Our breath is inhibited, we lost touch with it. So you have to coax it out of hiding. And it is asana that helps you do it. It is that simple. What is particularly important is vinyasa. Now it is practically impossible to think about asana that is static, that does not have movement associated with it. Be it this or that kind of yoga, they are all based on what Pattabhi Jois started. Before that it was different. When you took a class in 70's or 80's, you wouldn’t have moved with the breath. Vinyasa follows the breathing pattern. The inbreath is an expansion, the outbreath is a contraction. The movements are imitating that and helping you to bring it of hiding. So when you lift the chest in the upward facing dog, that helps you to breath in, when fold forward that helps you breath out. But this is only one reason why you do it. What you also want to do is to learn from that. You want to learn how to separate breath and movement, so you will be able not to move and still breath well. You allow your asana practice to teach you about breathing. There is also an energetic aspect to it. One can talk about breath very scientifically, mechanically or anatomically – i.e. that it is respiration, exchange of oxygen and CO2, or that your diaphragm contracts and releases with the breath. But in yoga, breath is also an energetic event. The purpose of yoga is to stop distracting mind activities and one of the ways do it is the movement of prana, or life force, with the breath. The breath contains the prana. Part of the job of connecting asana with breathing is to churn, to generate prana, to wake it up. When we are not breathing well, we are distracted and prana is inhibited. We do asana with breathing to wake the energy inside the body.

Marek Łaskawiec: Let’s talk about the intensity of breath. During the workshop you said that if we wanted to energize ourselves on a bad day, we should have started breathing more energetically. On the other hand, when someone is too fired-up, it may be a good idea to breathe slower. What would be an idea tempo, intensity, loudness of breathing? Or is it just individual and we should follow our own’s intuition? 

DG: Yes and no. It is partly individual and we can partly rely on our intuition but you want to stay within a certain range. It is like with any kind of artist. Take for instance musicians. They can generate all kinds of subtleties and softness but suddenly they can go to the other spectrum - there is this explosion of sound, almost total chaos. And this is also true with a breathing yogi. You can be so subtle but also you can release your total power. You can do it slowly or you can do it fast without any conflict. In his Yoga Sutra Patanjali says: “tato dvandva-an-abhighatah” (2:48), i.e. when you are doing asana, you are not constrained by the opposites. That also applies to breathing. You are so versatile and responsive with the breath, you are so tuned into it and you are so in hold of that technology, because breathing is technology. But what can happen is that you can lock yourselves out in different ways. For instance, when you breathe too forcefully, how can you listen to your breath? Some people do it and it is not even nice to practice next to them. They lose their awareness but they think: “I’ve got it going, I’m churning!”. On the other hand, you can also be very timid and hardly breathe at all, which is also bad. So you want to maintain that range and utilize it skillfully. Everything that you can apprehend with the senses is always changing. Because we hate change, this is so vexing to us. Additionally, it requires discipline to be constantly confronted with change. But this is the way it is, you have to negotiate it and your breath will reflect that. It can go from one side of the range to the other and intuitively you will follow it. It is a part of becoming skillful. You are like an instrument, you learn to play it and you want to express yourself. That is why you need a good range.

Marek Łaskawiec: It is said that when you breathe during practice it should be done freely. However, there are some difficult asanas, the asanas we struggle with, and these are different asanas for different people. So when you enter one of those difficult asanas, the breathing may be rather far from being free. Is there some sort of border line, when we should say: “I can’t breathe free in this asana, it’s too difficult for me, I need more time and preparation to do it properly”? Or maybe we should just go for it, hoping that one day we will start breathing freely? 

DG: That is a very good question. This is something that is worth exploring. As you said, there is a limit. To some degree, when you put yourself in this challenging predicament that tests your breath, that is a part of bringing the breath out of hiding. You fall into one of those poses and it challenges your breath and may bring it out of hiding but it may also constrain it. When breathing is very forced, you want to see the asana as happening on a learning progression and apply some modifications. That progression starts from Samasthiti and builds through every asana. Your ability to breathe shows where you are in that progression. When you are in a very extended state and you feel too tense, it indicates that you may have gone too far in the progression. So you have to find a different stage in order not to panic or cause injury. Because you can injure yourself when your breathing is too strained or too forced. However, there always the risk that if you are too timid and stay in the comfort zone, there is no progress. When you enter into asana for the first time, it may be a great struggle but when you continue doing it every day, two months laterthere is not more panic breathing. You have settled with it and you would have never settled with this if you had just backed off. So you have to play this right. One of the main reasons for asanas is to explore new capacity for breath.

Marek Łaskawiec: You said that breathing during practice prepares us for pranayama. What is the difference between the breathing during pranayama and the ujai breathing we do during asana practice? 

DG: What distinguishes pranayama from asana practice is one thing, and this is the essence of pranayama. It is kumbhaka, or breath retention. You can play around with breath retention during the practice, like when you do uddiyana kriya, but the focus will never be on the retention gap but more on the breathing. In pranayama you reverse that – the breath intentionally serves the retention. And this is a very different feeling. Certainly, you can take a very long outbreath before kumbhaka but that would require very developed skills. What you rather should be doing is a more dynamic outbreath. Then you stay in the state of breath retention and explore non-breathing. The difference is also on the energetic level. Asana moves prana, pranayama stops the pranic movement. This is a big difference.

Marek Łaskawiec: People usually start doing yoga by practicing asana. Hopefully, they also practice yamas and niyamas. Practicing pranayama is, however, not that common. What would be you selling point to those who do not do pranayama. Why is it worth practicing? 

DG: The main, and a very good selling point, would be that it simply improves your asana practice. It may really transform the way you practice asanas. Breathing is the key to opening your body. There is obviously a genetic component to flexibility, but breathing helps you to open up to that. There is also the rhythm to the asana. From anatomic point of view it is even called the skeletal rhythm. Asana which is done statically, without breath, is lacking this organic quality, it is lacking this natural thing that is supposed to happen. This will make your practice less fulfilling, it will make you stiffer or less strong – it will generally emphasize your weakness. Whereas proper breathing will open you up and make you stronger. It is also worth remembering that asana is something that lures you into yoga. But if you want to stay long with yoga, you have to realize that there are only very few people who will stay with yoga only for doing asanas, i.e. just for exercise. Yoga is so hard and it runs up against your ego so forcefully. So eventually your reasons for doing yoga deepen. My teacher used to say that if you have come in contact with yoga in this life, you must have done it in your previous life, because you are so fortunate. We all have some sort of a homing device, this innate image of self. We are here for a sacred purpose, for spiritual reasons, not to enjoy material pleasures. The whole purpose of being here is to create the identification with the spiritual aspect of the existence. When winter comes, the geese get together and fly South. They don’t need to go to school to learn that, they don’t have to memorize that on a given day of the year they should do this or that. They just know. The same is with the salmon when they spawn. How do they know where the right river is? They didn’t sit in the classroom to learn that. The same is with you and me. We have this part that is pulling us against the material, against all the distractions. But very often we are not like the geese, sometimes we decide not to go South. But eventually hopefully, we start to listen to it, we heed that inner part, and we go from asana to pranayama and from pranayama to silence and stillness and acquire this quite new perspective. That is why we do pranayama.

Marek Łaskawiec: Some people say that you should be careful practicing pranayama, that if you do not do it correctly and you are not ready for it, it can be dangerous. They say that in order to start practicing pranayama you have to be on a certain level of your asana practice and it is advisable to start doing it under the guidance of an experienced teacher. What is your opinion in this matter?  

DG: I fully agree. It is very important to take pranayama seriously. Prana is a cyclical force of life, it is this ebb and flow we talked about. When you do pranayama, you take this flow and you try to control it! Stopping the cyclical activity of life is like trying to stop the flow of the entire universe. Your body and your psyche can almost explode, it is so powerful and you have to respect it. The asana practice gives you strength, discipline and rigor to be even able to think about that. Working with breathing is a very physical thing. Your belly and your limbs have to be strong. Also the muscular capacity of your lungs has to be strong and that requires development. However, the energetic and psychic aspects are even more important. If you look at the very word “pranayama” itself, “yama” means to restrain, “ayama” translates as unrestraining. So when you do pranayama, you unrestrain prana. This is however tricky, because you unrestrain by sealing. Bandhas and mudras are seals, so when doing pranayama, you contain the life force, you trap it like you trap liquid in a pressure cooker. And you know what happens when you play with a pressure cooker – you seal it, you heat it up, then you hear this hissing sound and when you leave it unattended, what is going to happen? It is going to blow. You have therefore to manage it – you turn the burner down to maintain just the right pressure. That requires a lot of skill. On the other hand, if you don’t seal it, it is not really potent. Yoga is a response to suffering. We are walking around afraid, jealous, wounded by life. When we come out of the womb, we are not just a clean slate, like an angelic cherub. We are born with certain tendencies, we are coming to the world with attachments and aversions. Then the life experiences happen, we interact with our parents, accumulate experiences, get hurt by life. Life is not perfect, it’s full of bumps and obstacles. And we build up so much fear around that that we shade out our memories, opinions, feelings about yourselves and other people. So when you seal it all up, it is coming right in front of you. It is the hālāhala, the poison. You start seeing the ugliness, your anger and you have to handle all that. This is not easy to face that pain that reveals itself. It can blow out, like a pressure cooker, so you have to be ready. When you do pranayama, you are asking to see how you are blocking yourself and you have to face it, contain and transform it. But some of it is so deeply rooted that transforming it is almost impossible. So you have learn how to be with that piece of you. That is what you are asking for when you start doing pranayama ...

Marek Łaskawiec: I’m not sure if I want to do pranayama again ... 

DG: (laughter)

Marek Łaskawiec:...but assuming I still decide to do it, what would be the ideal time? Before or after the practice? 

DG: That is a very hard question and I don’t know if I have a definite answer. There are benefits to both. Either way it takes a lot of discipline. But it may take more discipline to do it afterwards. Pattabhi Jois recommended to do it after practice. On the other hand, when you wake up early and you are not ready do to a lot of asanas, it is so good to do some pranayama first. I do it more often before practice then after and I really like it. For me it is a great way to begin my practice – it gets me ready for asanas. But I’ve come to this point after more than 20 years of regular practice. But I also see the benefits of the other way. When you do asana, it turns on this churning, raises the energy and prepares you for pranayama practice. So in a way it is a superior way, the proper order.

Marek Łaskawiec: When we practice Ashtanga Yoga, our practice is based on a well-defined sequence of asanas. Should we also approach pranayama practice like this? Or maybe we should rather chose different pranayama techniques, depending on our mood or our needs?

DG: There is a practical aspect to it. I don’t think the order is as crucial with pranayama as it is with asana. With maturity of asana practice, the order is also becoming less crucial. When you are learning, and for me it is like 7 to 10 years of a 6 days a week practice, following the sequences is very key to getting that technology. But after 10 years you gain some skill and some independence, so you can individualize more. In the case of pranayama, there is a set sequence in Ashtanga. But when you really do it, it takes 30 to 45 minutes, depending how long your retentions are. It is not realistic for most people to do 90 minutes of asana practice and then 30-45 minutes of breathing exercises. If it is, you can do it and follow the sequence every day. But it takes a lot of discipline to do that consistently. If this is not realistic, you can be more flexible with pranayama, you can pick and choose more. I certainly do not see that as harmful. Doing 10 minutes pranayama is better than none. From physiological and psychological point of view you also may want to introduce some variety and mix up different exercises. This is an instrument you want to use well and in a different ways. 

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