Breathing in Ashtanga Unites the Gross and the Subtle
The integration of breath with movement unites the physical and subtler mental dimensions of the Ashtanga practice. Excess tension and the struggle to find balance or ground in postures often lead to difficulties in breathing.
These difficulties include periods of holding the breath followed by labored breathing, tremulous breathing, and the feeling of being out of breath. It takes staying power to breathe five full smooth, even breaths in challenging postures. It takes even more staying power to keep the breath even and integrated with the movement in transitions between postures.
Not all movements in the Ashtanga series require equal effort. Yet the instruction I have heard from my teachers is to inhale and exhale with equal duration, smooth out the transitions between inhales and exhales, relax the breath, and make the movements match the duration and quality of the breath. Equal and free breathing is challenging because each Ashtanga series has peaks of energy demands and different sized movements, which challenge the equilibrium of the breath. In primary, I experience the peak energy demand between Marichasana D and Garbha pindasana. In second series, I experience two peaks, one between Laghu vajrasana and Bakasana and one between Karandavasana and Nakrasana.
At the energetic peaks of practice, I tend to run a deficit between the energetic demands of postures and the supply of energy from the breath. I experience these deficits as feeling out of breath. To the best of my ability in those moments, I choose to maintain relaxed smooth full breathing. When I notice the body and breath is shaking, I deliberately and continuously relax tension in the body and use only what is necessary to do the pose. I relax the soft palette. I relax the face. Relaxed body has a feedback into smooth relaxed breath. I notice that deficits may be recovered by relaxing and breathing fully in subsequent poses that are less challenging to the breath. If the energetic demand of postures greatly exceeds the energetic supply of the breath, then this is a good sign to stop adding poses and work for a while in poses where the breath is most challenged.
Consistent, intelligent, practice is the long road towards finding steadiness and ease in the breath. With practice, strength and flexibility increase. Breathing is refined, leading to a greater sensitivity and awareness of bandha. Gradually we learn to move the center of mass efficiently with respect to gravity. With a compact form, center will have the smallest length or angle relative to the vertical line of gravity. Lifting a compact mass requires less muscular effort. In turn, the breath is less challenged.
How will you know whether you are breathing optimally in practice? I’ve noticed in practices where the breath is dialed in, I experience a flow state during practice. My attention is directed toward maintaining full free breathing and in turn I experience a heightened awareness of the momentary sensations to relax the tension in my body. After practice, I often feel clear, calm, grounded. I felt like I’ve awoken from a deep sleep.
There are also telltale signs of when my breathing technique was suboptimal.
If I am breathing too fast, I often feel agitated after practice. If the breathing was labored or I was feeling out of breath during practice, I often feel tired and spacey, with the out of breath feeling persisting for an hour or so after practice. If I am breathing too slowly, I feel sleepy during practice and my concentration often wanders.
The capacity for relaxed concentration on the breath depends on how well I have slept the previous night. The capacity for free breathing in Ashtanga is greatest when my stomach is empty and there is minimal digestion happening. Context matters.
There is infinite room for refinement of breathing in Ashtanga practice. As the breath becomes easy and relaxed, there are more poses to challenge the breath. There is always more refinement in matching the movement with the breath. I’d recommend practicing with a metronome from time to time. The metronome practice has helped me to stretch out the breath in portions of the practice where I am rushing. I typically breathe at a pace of about 3 second inhales and 3 second exhale. Adjust as needed to a pace that feels sustainable for you.
I’d like to believe that refinement of the breath is leading toward greater emotional equanimity off of the mat. This practice has shown me that there is a lot of choice in how I respond to discomfort. Relaxing and staying with the breath seems more adventurous and less avoidant than muscling through and holding my breath. While maintaining full, even breathing throughout the challenging postures of the Ashtanga requires physical relaxation, it also requires a high degree of concentration and grit. Exercise your grit.