You'll likely be familiar with how important breathing is to the practice of yoga.
It's a remarkably effective and direct way to leave behind your whirling mind, once you've become comfortable with it.
If you've not yet discovered the benefits of breath focus, you may wonder what all the fuss is about and decide that the usual everyday breathing we do all day long is sufficient.
Breath focus, or pranayama in Sanskrit, is a profound and accessible tool that can offer a way into a direct experience of yourself, your mind, body and breath. A bridge out of being lost in thought, lost in worries, day dreaming etc. You move beyond thinking about the breath and become able to simply experience the breath with full awareness. At first maybe just for micro-moments, but over time in more sustained ways.
If you've ever tried this, you might be thinking, easier said than done. But like many things that are worthwhile, it might take a bit of practice to get the hang of it.
12 count hand mudra
A technique we've been using in my yoga classes this term which can be hugely helpful, is the 12-count hand mudra. A brilliant device for accessing the breath awareness more fully. A simple hand gesture that once it is familiar enough is a great addition to your yoga toolkit.
Using the left hand turned up, the back of the hand resting on your thigh, you use the thumb to count round the 12 inner creases of each finger (inside the knuckles).
- Place the thumb on the first crease of your first finger, and take a breath (inhale and exhale).
- Then on the next breath, moving the thumb to the middle crease on the first finger.
- With 12 creases to count on your fingers, you move round in a spiral shape among the creases. With 12 movements of your thumb, 12 breaths, you finally reach the middle of your ring finger (as long as you didn't forget to move your thumb and remembered to only touch each finger crease once).
Simple but effective
It is similar to counting on beads, and serves the same purpose. It helps you move away from your thoughts, and for a moment leave behind your conceptual mind (counting after all is conceptual).
The counting has been migrated to the hand so the mind is free to experience the breath more directly and fully. You are able to count without thinking about counting. This technique, once it is practiced enough for it to be comfortable and easy, allows you to move out of thinking and come more fully into directly experiencing the breath and the sensations in your hands. From here, you can experience each breath and moment in a new way.
It is a simple idea. As a technique it doesn't have the glitter of a complex body shape or flow of movements, but in its simplicity lies its power.
So ... a challenge for you
- Week 1: Use the mudra everyday to learn it and become comfortable with it
- Week 2: Then se it every day with more subtlety and more proficiency and notice the difference.
Simply take 12 quiet breaths, counting on your hand. Notice what you experience when you do it, how it leaves you, and if this has any bearing on the rest of your day.
Enjoy and feel free to get in touch with questions.
Are you good at yoga?
Are you doing yoga wrong?
Is there a body position you struggle against?
Is there a breath technique which feels hard?
Who made up the rules of yoga anyway?
Rules are made up by people
Rules are made up by people. They are guidelines that probably helped someone (or many people) to gain more from their yoga practice, and so they keep being repeated and enforced in the hope that they will help you too.
They are often from a book and you don't really know if the person who wrote the book would stick to that rule if they knew what happened with you when you tried to follow it. Or the rule might simply be from a bossy person who likes to tell people what to do.
I do this to my kids quite often, enforce rules and boundaries, sometimes I'll seem bossy. And this has its place. Sometimes they just need to know where to start, and what to do, and how to do it. It is a good place to begin for them, and they like rules ... at first.
But at some point there is a conversation about the rule, when they are ready or when they feel like that rule isn't a great idea, and the rule may well be due for an update as a result of the discussion. Or they may just need to understand what underpins the rule helps it make more sense to them.
When to break the rules
Rules are there to be helpful. But rules are also there to be broken / updated / changed when they aren't working.
If you come up against a rule in yoga, use it as a springboard for your own enquiry into what it does for you, or what it doesn't do for you. This doesn't give you free reign to do what you like, discipline is a powerful tool in yoga and one that I have high regard for.
This is where teachers are really helpful. Someone more experienced at understanding this rule than you, with whom you can discuss it. Explore why the rule would be a helpful one for you to work with (or not). What might the rule offer that your not seeing from your viewpoint.
Be prepared for an outcome either way, or if the teacher doesn't know why the rule is there, and isn't able to explore it with you, then find someone more experienced who is.
Perhaps the rule is generally a good idea, or perhaps the insight you gain from the conversation and enquiry is perhaps more beneficial than the rule itself.
Hot yoga is really popular as an alternative to regular temperature yoga classes. Hot yoga is a studio-based yoga practice in a super-heated room (42 degrees celcius - imagine Egypt in the summer then pour in extra humidity) where the aim is to work through a physical yoga practice and sweat a ton, then lie down and bask in the heat as you recover from the effort. It's intense and many people love it.
Why super heat a yoga class?
The claims about benefits of hot yoga practice are many:
- Detoxes the body
- Sweating is good for you
- Improved flexibility
... and so on.
The science may not back this up, but those who love it feel the results and swear by it. Those who don't love it, probably never go back.
I fall into the latter camp and find the claims to be subjective but if it benefits you and you enjoy it, then keep doing it.
As with all physical yoga practices, be cautious not to over stretch and be particularly careful with your joints, that they stay within a safe and comfortable range of motion. I have had many injured hot yoga practitioners come with knee, elbow and shoulder injuries from hot yoga classes so go carefully. Sometimes when the heat is on and the practice is intense, it is hard to listen to the inner voice advising you to ease off. Hot yoga can get competitive and that makes it harder to draw back from a pose when necessary. So applying your own sensible body-awareness skills to your practice is paramount when the heat intensity is turned up.
Is it more beneficial than not-hot yoga?
I'm biased, as I've been practicing yoga for 20 years and find an ambient room or even a cool space a wonderful way to practice. I can engage fully in my yoga practice when I'm able to turn the attention inwards rather than feeling overly hot or sweaty. I tend to heat up during my practice anyway, even if just taking a breathing (pranayama) practice.
I recently came across an interesting thesis which undertook a study comparing hot yoga practitioners alongside regular temperature Hatha yoga practitioners. The aim was to measure the effects of yoga practice on physiological and psychological fitness in young men and women over an 8-week period. Health metrics that were monitored include BMI, blood pressure, flexibility, peak oxygen consumption, back depression, anxiety and depression metrics.
Hot yoga participants worked at a significantly higher cardiovascular intensity and spent more time at a higher heart rate throughout the classes. But even with this, over the 8-week period, both hot yoga and Hatha yoga groups saw the same improvements in body composition and flexibility and also in anxiety and depression scores. So the outcome observations suggest that there are real, significant health benefits to engaging in both forms of yoga practice but there was no final measure on any additional psychological or physiological benefits gained by hot yoga training.
So by all means, do hot yoga practice if you love it and feel no ill effects from it, but from what we can tell, the health benefits are not greater doing it in a hot and sweaty room.
Another article to read more on this can be found here >
Home yoga practice?
I'm a big advocate of home yoga practice. Little and often can often bring about the most benefit - it is free to everyone and has an intimacy to it that you rarely get in the classroom. Ask any of my students who get a free home yoga practice handout at the end of each term to go and try at home. So learning your yoga practice skills in a group class or with personal yoga tuition and then starting to apply those skills in your home practice is a wonderful way to practice yoga. I've written about home yoga practice before here.
One of the limiting factors to hot yoga practice is that you have to go to the studio regularly to do this, and the costs add up. (Don't get me started on Mr Bikram, the hot yoga business mogul and his exuberant love of money and Rolls Royces - as a business model he turned hot yoga into a money spinner). Of course the communities that develop around group classes are wonderful and valuable, but the tie in to the studio and the costs involved can become problematic.
What about subtlety in yoga practice?
Beyond the intense physicality of the hot yoga class, also remember there is an inner essence to yoga practice. The internal connection through body, breath and mental focusing that go beyond the measurable health metrics outlined in the comparative study. I'm not sure the subtlety of my pranayama or meditation practice would be possible in an intensely heated environment yet the crown of my yoga practice can often be found here (thus my bias to comfortable temperature practice). My inner meditative focus might be externally drawn to feeling overly hot or to the physical sensations of sweating. But I get that some folks need the intensity of a very physical practice to keep them focused out of their busy minds.
I guess my final thought is that usually any yoga practice is better than no practice - so ultimately do whatever is likely to motivate you and do what you you will enjoy.
Thanks to Kalin Shephert Gawinski for sharing the abstract to their study from 2012.
Breathing well in yoga can seem tricky
As a beginner to yoga, it can seem difficult to keep the focus on the breath. It is common to find that you’ve been holding your breath and straining in some postures. Arms and legs are just about doing what the teacher has invited you to do - but your breath, well who knows?
This is particularly noticeable in a fast-paced or deeply strenuous class where the body is most dominant and anything else gets left behind as you work your way through the class.
So what if my breath isn't great?
Day to day we typically breath 12-15 breaths per minute. The rate, depth and quality of it can help adjust our levels of anxiety and stress, our immune system effectiveness and many more physical and mental health markers. Yoga offers profound teachings in the breath if we choose to listen that can support our health, wellbeing and awareness in our day to day lives.
Familiarity helps to develop our breath focus
Gradually, with familiarity of a regular yoga practice, we can start to remember to breathe with a flowing and calmer breath. And eventually the breath and movements start to link together more. From here we can start to take that further still and refine into a more advanced yoga practice.
Once you feel you are able to link the breath and movements together, then the power of the breath can really start to be harnessed and the refinement and quality of our yoga practice can bloom. Our nervous system will feel immense benefit from working skilfully with breath centring and we can move beyond the endorphin highs of vigorous and strenuous yoga practice and move towards maturing our yoga practice.
The breath powers our yoga practice
Sounds obvious, of course we need to breath to power everything that we do or we’ll collapse in a heap. But it is easy to forget about the quality of our breath when distracted or physically strained. What if you eased back from the strain and found a spaciousness in the breath to develop the power of your yoga practice instead? What would that feel like? What could it do to your yoga practice?
What if we found our physical alignment from our breath?
We often listen to the technical instruction from the yoga teacher: move your foot here, rotate your hip there, etc... Breath-centred practice can support us to more naturally open and expand your body into a posture, rather than teaching instruction being the main driver. Explore how your breath can position you into a natural alignment from within that is unique to your body structure and your deepening breath.
Starting out with breath-centred yoga practice
The classes at Bristol YogaSpace work with a deeply breath-centred approach to yoga. Rather than simply coordinating with our breath, which is common in many Vinyasa, Flow or Ashtanga yoga practices, we centre ourselves in the breath more deeply and use it to power the practice and direct the postures and focus.
When I started out some 20 years ago I practiced Ashtanga yoga, a vigourous and strong yoga practice, then Iyengar yoga which is technical and detailed in its formal postures. But I eventually discovered a truly breath-centred approach in Viniyoga and practice was transformed for me.
Perhaps ask your teacher more about the breath when you feel ready or curious or come along to a Viniyoga class which specialises in breath-centred yoga practice, or a yoga workshop to support you to develop more breath centring in your yoga practice.
Enjoy your yoga practice.
“Without breath, it isn’t yoga – it is like a river without water”
We do it all day long, and most of the time we don't even think about it. Maybe we notice our breathing if we are climbing a flight of stairs and we breathe more heavily. Or perhaps if we are upset and our breathing becomes affected we become aware of it. But mostly it just carries on unconsciously.
In yoga we become trained to listen, feel and even count our breath. We see it as a mirror reflecting how we are and learn to observe it and even control it sometimes, for beneficial effects.
A smooth, flowing, regulated breath helps to stabilise our thoughts and our minds. Steady full breathing encourages relaxation to set in and helps release deeply held tension that we aren't even conscious we are carrying.
Students often first come to yoga without having consciously listened to their own breathing before. This alone can be challenging for some but eventually it is deeply rewarding. We almost need to 'learn' how to breathe properly. This sounds silly as we manage quite successfully to breathe all day long. But often we don't breathe very effectively or efficiently and there is usually room for improvement. There are even projects dedicated just to improve our breathing, like The Breathing Projectin NYC.
Ultimately better breathing can promote better health. The shallow every-day breathing that we often use can be encouraged to be deeper.
Try this for a moment
Try taking a full, deep, slow inhale. Keep inhaling until the belly expands, notice the chest rise up gently. Then slowly exhale and feel the body gradually soften as you do so. Breathe out until there is no breath remaining in the lungs. Try using the tummy at the end, pulling it in to squeeze any last air out of the body. Notice how much longer that breath took than usual, and then perhaps realise how much more fully you could breathe if you paid attention to it. Allow the shoulders to relax and take another full breath.
The benefits of breathing properly are broad and wide ranging. To name a few, they include reduced anxiety, stress and even blood-pressure. Relaxed respiratory muscles and some neck muscles. More efficient breathing and oxygen exchange and improved cardiovascular system. Strengthened diaphragm and intercostal (rib) muscles. Better posture. Improved physical endurance. And of course, a calmer state of mind.
Yoga dedicates a whole aspect of its teaching to Pranayama or breath control and many techniques take years to master.
The breath is more powerful than we realise. Try noticing it at a few different points today and see if it tells you anything about youself. It almost certainly will if you take the time to listen.
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Having done some recent work on yoga for the older age group (culminating in yoga suitable for those with hip replacements which is on the more extreme end of the scale of things to consider), and also having discussed it with some of the over 55s in my current group classes, it seemed that it would be good to put on a class especially for over 55s. Not because they aren't just as capable in many cases of working well in a mainstream class, but more to give that feeling of familiarity of the mix of people in the room.
As bodies get older, the impressions of life manifest themselves differently on different people. Knees, back problems, stiffnesses are different from person to person. Some people are strong and fit in their older years, others less so. The class will be a chance to offer a range of adaptations suitable to the people who attend the class and will be a safe and comfortable place to practice yoga.
Beyond our physical limitations, Ramaswami has also taught on yoga for the three stages of life and the type of yoga practices that would be recommended at different stages.
The first stage, the early years and childhood where the body is still growing and the mind is still maturing so a focus on asana (postures) is the emphasis.
The middle years where we are adults, working, raising families and having busy and full lives, where we maintain our health through asana and progress our pranayama (breath control) practice. Then the later years, when we are more reflective, the body is left with impressions of our lives, here the focus moves towards maintaining health through asana, pranayama along with developing meditation and reflection. The stages of life supported by the different limbs or petals of yoga. More on yoga and the stages of life are in this excellent book Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, Srivatsa Ramaswami.
Anyway, the new class, Yoga for Over 55s, will be starting on September 14th and will be from 11.15am until 12.15pm. Beginners very welcome!
Friday evening and YogaSpace is full with almost 30 people celebrating the new yoga centre in Bristol. Paul Harvey, a deeply knowledgeable yoga teacher and my teacher for almost 5 years led the evening which included a wide range of students from experienced yoga teachers to interested beginners.
Paul led us through discussions about yoga, some yoga practices, chanting and amusing anecdotes about his time in India with some of the great teachers over the past 30 years or so. The discussions were focused around body, breath, mind and beyond, leading us into the more mystical aspects of yoga.
He started with discussions about Hatha yoga as body and energy work, using yoga as a starting point for physical health. Then leading in to ideas about breathing (pranayama) with specific techniques to aid our mental clarity and concentration. We discussed the concept of 'prana' or energy, the 'glue' that gives us life. Who knows what prana actually is, science doesn't quite define yet or describe it yet either, but something in us is our undefinable life force, stronger and more vital in some than in others, energy that is variable from day to day that can't be described in chemical or scientific terms. (An interesting illustration of the elusive concept of prana is 'chronic fatigue syndrome', very real for many people, no currently understood medical cause or treatment, and the yoga model considers this to be an issue with prana or our life force.). In yoga the breath is used to influence prana so a great deal of emphasis is put on the breathing as we take postures (asana) and then as we learn to sit and just 'breathe' as we refine and deepen our yoga practice.
Asana are often used for fitness and flexibility but were traditionally intended to help us strengthen the body and give support and length to the spine, the central channel in the body which provides us with the ability to sit, breathe well, and ultimately to meditate well without the body causing a distraction by aching after 5 minutes! Good asana practice leads to good energy, prana/apana and chakra health. The secondary purpose of good asana practice is to refine the rest of the body, for good structural and systemic health.
We took a crash course in chanting some sanskit chants. 'Yogena yogo' helped to take us out of our normal frame of mind, perhaps we found it uncomfortable or odd, perhaps we enjoyed the sounds and the group integration into one voice and the focus needed to listen and then repeat the different sanskit sounds. Either way, we felt different when the chanting was finished, and isn't that part of the point of yoga, to help us see things slightly differently and explore our reaction to resistances in our body and mind.
We talked about pranayama, the practice of controlling the breathing in different ways, a discipline often not taught in a group yoga class. We discussed the use of breath in asana to help develop a long, sustained, smooth breath so that when we practice pranayama, we have a trained breath with stamina that we can then work with. A Sivananda teacher raised an interesting point that in the Sivananda yoga tradition she was studying, they are advised not to teach pranayama unless the student has a pure body free from meat and alcohol, otherwise pranayama would be worse for you than not doing it at all. As Paul discussed this with her, he referred to the origin of the teaching which has Hindu principal's at it's heart. Sivananda brings a Hindu interpretation to yoga, coming from a Vedanta tradition, and blends yoga and Hindu teachings. The 'Yoga Sutras', a seminal and ancient yoga text by Patanjali which is studied and respected by most who teach yoga, don't mention being vegetarian or the requirement of purity before learning pranayama. There wasn't disagreement that this was a good thing, just a clarification of where the teaching was coming from and understanding of what Yoga teaches us and what religion teaches us. Yoga can be interpretted without any religious influence as a set of practices for health and transformation and Patanjali is careful not to include religion in his teachings, even though it was written over 2,000 years ago.
We took some group asana practice before having a break and coming back to a discussion about Raja yoga. The focus now moved on the the mind and beyond. Yoga classes that teach asana are often for its own fitness purposes, but it was traditionally taught to ultimately train the mind. Asana and pranayama are used to provide us with a stable mind and body with the intention to prepare us for meditation and ultimately a connection with something beyond ourselves. Reflection and meditation require discipline, which requires training and preparation to be able to effectively practice these. As death looms closer for us in our later years, an enquiry into what might lie beyond death drives many to religion, or it can lead to reflective meditation and an enquiry into what life is all about and perhaps exploring something in us that might be permenant and beyond death. Or it might lead to busy, full lives full of activities and friendships that help us avoid thinking about death at all! Meditation allows space to explore or to just 'be' and ultimately not worry about it...
I left the evening feeling that YogaSpace had been filled with teachings that got right to the heart of yoga. The warmth of the group and the good wishes from Paul for the new yoga centre were an inspiration to me and to YogaSpace. And we raised £235 for the Julian Trust Night Shelter! Thanks to everyone who came, to Paul for being so generous with his time and his teachings, and for making the evening such a special and memorable event.
Next Friday evening should be a wonderful event as we're honoured to have Paul Harvey at the studio. He is a great teacher and one of the foremost authorities in Yoga and will lead us through an evening exploring body, breath, mind and beyond. All are welcome and entry is a £10 donation to support the Julian Trust Night Shelter, a Bristol-based charity.
The evening will offer an introduction to Yoga as
body and energy work, psychology and mysticism
through asana, pranayama, sound, and mantra.
Through presentation and practice we will explore how
Yoga postures, breathing and sound can lead to meditational stillness, along with discussion and time for your questions.
Numbers are limited so please get in touch to book a space. Look forward to seeing you there!
Founder of YogaSpace,
More about Clara >