Monday, October 3, 2011

Breathing and Backbending

Photo: The Indian Sky (Mysore)
It is surprising to realize that our longest standing companion, who has been with us since birth and will only leave us at death, is often the most taken for granted and neglected aspect of ourselves. The breath (the vital source) that moves the body provides the energy and drive to sustain it in all postures. The breath is always there even if we are not. One of the most common approaches to practice is to think of the breath after stretching the body. However, in yoga it is the other way around. The breath is first and last.

Improper exercise and quite possibly the aerobics era made breathing obsolete. Learning how to breathe is the first lesson of yoga and especially if you learn it in India or from a guru. Most people in North America are introduced to yoga with the Bums to Steel approach; later on recognizing that yoga is actually a whole of practices, thinking and even ritual. In fact, yoga is far less exercise as it is mental discipline. Yet, we start from where we know and what we can understand said B.K.S. Iyengar in many of his teachings. And that place has to be the body before getting to know some of the more subtle and/or obvious aspects of practice like the breath.

Here is an exercise that will increase awareness and an appreciation for the breath (the latter is perhaps more important).

Take any posture of yoga and practice to observe your breath. Is it short? Is it long? Can you suspend your drive to force the body and listen to the breath? Are the breaths the same duration? Which one do you favour (the inhalation or the exhalation)?

Generally speaking if you are not breathing you are probably trying to force your body into the position with your mind. Depending on much strain you can take this approach might work but only to a certain degree. It is actually a very limited approach and why many people end hurting themselves and not understanding why. B.K.S. Iyengar said a very interesting thing which was recorded in The Tree of Yoga (a series of lectures recorded by his students). He said if you take the lotus pose and tell your brain, “Let’s do it.” Your knee will break. Your knee cannot be drive by your brain and your knee does not have the mobility to simply fold over. What is needed is an ability to study the mechanics of the knee and to systemically remove the stiffness. It cannot be done in one or two moves. It might even take a few years to understand the knee mentally, emotionally and physically.

Because every yoga posture is a point of concentration when you stop the breath you will also lose your focus. Becoming aware of these habits is a central the purpose of practice. This is why it cannot be overemphasized that it is holding a physical posture which is harder than just “getting”. You breathe to feel your body, to relax your mind and to open yourself to the experience. Whatever comes up mentally, emotionally and/or physically is the raw material for practice.

For example, if there is pain this is a sign you are doing something wrong. If there are strong sensations you may need to deepen your focus on how you are breathing. If you feel emotional you may have noticed you stopped the breath, which is a sign of control or withholding.

How this applies to the practice of backbends is multi-faceted and invigorating. Some backbends are simple while others are complex. They are rooted to our mental patterns and hidden tendencies. Ultimately whatever you are working with in practice is your canvas. It is your mental attitude, expectations and desires, which have labelled them as being either good or bad. That is why yoga is not just grapping your ankles and you're done. The pose cannot be judged from the outside because it is ultimately an inner experience. Just because the gal beside you in class looks super ‘flexy’ does not mean she has reached the depth of the asana on the mental level. Although we have come to judge the posture by the physical practice this has left out what it really is about.

Here are a few methods you can apply to your practice using the breath:
1. Practice to observe without judging yourself (re: "I should be doing more." "I am not very good at this pose."
2. Develop the opposite reaction (re: if you are not breathing in wheel you begin to tell yourself to first relax and breathe).
3. Discover if you gravitate to either your 'in' or 'out' breath.
4. Free yourself of thoughts of ‘trying to do’, ‘forcing’ and a competitive attitude (yoga is meant to be a practice to reduce externals and to focus on internals). Don’t ‘try’ just ‘do’.
5. Return to number 1.

For more advanced thinking try these ideas:
  • Visualize yourself not as physical body breathing but as a breathing body;
  • Understand that you cannot move well or fully (or really at all) without the breath;
  • Slow your mind down and move only with your breath.

    Above all, have some fun while practising. One of my first yoga teachers said yogasana is like 'play'. People get very upset with themselves when they cannot perform well. But where does this kind of thinking get you? The practice is like a game; sometimes you do well, other times you do not. Perhaps you even learn more if you don't always win or succeed in 'getting a posture'.

    1. Dear Heather,I would like to ask you a question. I try to do some yoga, but not regular basis. Asana I love is The Shoulder Stand and The Plow, but sometimes I have sharp pain at the back of my neck afterwards. Not exactly after, but next morning when still in bed. Ja, I have neck problems in general of course. What would good postures for my neck problem? Thank you.Inese

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    3. Did not see this comment until now!

      In both the shoulderstand and plough posture the cervical part of the spine....(region 6 and 7) should not be overly pressurized. In fact, when the shoulders are bearing the weight properly this area should not even be touching the ground. Most people practice with a lot of pressure and as a result you get pain. I recommend rolling your mat and having it support the back of your neck and shoulders more.

      When you already have neck issues (stiffness, etc) or something related to an injury you really have to check if the shoulderstand and plough are appropriate asanas for you. Simple exercises such as head and neck rolls and shoulder lifts should be done first.

      Both the shoulderstand and plough are considered wonderful postures for everyone ...but they also need to be approached properly. Working with a trained teacher would be really helpful.

      As for other postures that you can practice....usually a stiff neck is a result of stiffness in another part of the body as well (re: low back) or poor posture. The cobra does not directly affect the neck but can be a part of it esp. if the head is extended backward. This can be a good pose to practice to open the chest and roll the shoulders down.

      Forward bends are quite effective in also lengthening the back and removing tension from the spine. And, the arm posture in the eagle pose (a balance posture) is helpful to remove tension from the shoulder blades.

      Hope this helps!