Breathing deeply and rhythmically in our yoga practice is traditionally seen as what transforms yoga practice from body-work into a living, healing practice on every level of being from the cellular to the spiritual. The heart of vinyasa flow is, in my view, ‘uniting’ the breath with body movement. In order to do this so naturally and intuitively that our practice becomes meditative and fluid, we have to reconnect to natural breathing rhythms and learn how to subtly both enhance and relax the inhalation and exhalation.
The word ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin root spirare, meaning to breathe. From the root word, breath, we have derived not only the word inspire (which means to literally breathe in) but also spirit. Brething is both the source of inspiration, and the embodiment of spirituality in a very tangible practical way. The experience of inspiration and spirit seem to have a suddenness to them, being suddenly filled – and inviting a sudden directly purposed action. It occurred to me that in our yoga practice we can explore not only the lovely arm and chest opening poses that invite and reflect deep inhalation and energizing quality of inspiration, but also we can look at how to contain the breath, contain ideas, and harness energy.
In order to connect to your natural breath, we begin by aligning the chest and the belly so the breath has free passageway to move through the body without restriction or inhibition. Begin your practice by sitting with your hips raised higher than knees. If sitting is uncomfortable come to lie with knees bent, feet on ground. Place your thumbs in your armpits and lift the sides of your body up. Relax your shoulders. Take a deep breath and ‘dome’ up the upper bones of the chest, all the way into the clavicle. Exhale, let go.
Move your hands to your front/side ribs and feel the width-ways expansion of your rib cage as the lungs expand on the inhale, and close on the exhale. Placing your hands on the back of your rib cage, feel the breath opening the back ribs like wings on the inhalation, and the closing of the wings on the exhale. Now feel for your lower floating ribs near your waist-line. We want to smooth and align your lower ribs over your belly like a skirt. Lifting the arch of your lower back in slightly may help here, and softening all tension from the abdomen. Now your diaphragm has free space to move down towards the belly on the inhale, and rise back up to the chest on the exhale. As a baby breathes, allow your whole torso, your whole body to soften and expand with the breath.
To open into the arms – on the inhale simply open the arms wide out to the side, and on your exhale bring them back in. Time this perfectly with your breath. From a lying position (knees can be bent, feet on floor if more comfortable for your lower back), raise your arms up to the sky and then overhead with the inhalation, and back to the sides of the thighs on the exhalation. Notice that where the arms glide over is where the body expands and closes with your breath, like a wave of ‘inspiration’. Feel the breath ripple through the spine, lifting and then grounding the lower back on the floor. Notice how you feel.
To explore the idea of ‘containing’ the breath, and holding inspiration, begin to practice full yogic breathing with breath retentions: Inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Try to relax as much as possible as you contain the breath in between, relaxing your shoulders and your brows. If you feel comfortable to count the length of your inhale, hold the inhale for as long, exhale same count, and hold the exhalation for the same count. Visualise your breath rising, holding, and releasing evenly and smoothly in a square shape. Notice the change in sensation and the quality of breath and mind from the practice of holding the breath.
Now come to standing and practice a gentle moon vinyasa, with breath retentions in between the postures: