The First Fundamental Yoga Practice – A Breath Enquiry 

From our first breath in the world as a little baby, breath is fundamental to our existence. Similarly our last breath out is also a milestone of life, this time as a marker of it ending. We breathe in as we are born, and we breathe out on our death. 

This is telling of the power and nature of this phenomena. Breath is life, breath is energy and with this breath we exist within this world. Without this breath our bodies cease to work. This life force is in a continual flux and flow of movement within us and around us from the day we are born. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that when we teach people to engage with themselves that we start with breath work. The first fundamental movement of yoga is the movement associated with breath. The rhythmical patterns associated with breath moving in and out of our body are subtle and complex all at the same time. 

Engaging in breath enquiry is an exercise in life enquiry. 

The first of the key moving principles within yoga is breath (Farhi, 2000). Breath is an anchor with life. The moment that we are born breath moves us as each cell in the body expands, reduces, and rests in rhythmic pattern and is in a constant state of oscillation. This rhythmic oscillation is an intrinsic part of movement and life. Connecting self to breath is key in yoga practice as breath should lead movement and gives birth to the movement.

Breath can be both a conscious and unconscious process. Neuroscience tells us that people that have experienced trauma, are experiencing psychological distress, or are in physical pain engage with breath in a disrupted, stilted, difficult or strained manner. Consider times when you have pushed yourself further than your physical limits, pushed yourself mentally or experienced loss, trauma or pain, your breath changes, it becomes stilted, short and you may experience or a panicky feeling in your chest where you struggle to get the air that you need. This struggle with the breath moving in the body is representative of the psychological and physical distress that you are experiencing at the time. This struggle triggers your body into a sympathetic nervous response where you have an automatic response to protect yourself by either fleeing or fighting. This flight or fight response is an indicator that we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed and not coping. 

We can engage in a breath enquiry in order to witness and notice our connection with our breath. When we stop to take a moment, ground ourselves in the present and try and slow down the breath we are managing to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system which is our body’s way of regulating our stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system activates our ability to engage in situations calmly and with awareness and connection to the situation. Simply by engaging in breath exercises we can trigger this response and start to feel more calm.

Therefore, in yoga practices we are ultimately training ourselves to engage this response. We are using breath practices when we are moving in asana practice (postures) in order to connect mind and body. The breath moves us into the asana and guides us to observe and notice our body’s stress levels. 

If we find that we disconnect from our breath in our practice then perhaps the practice is too quick, and too complex for where we are at in our practice. Slow it down, engage back into your rhythmical breath patterns so that you can then notice and observe yourself within the space and notice and observe your physical and mental ability to cope and manage with the practice, with the challenges that you face.

So…, start slowly. Try this breath enquiry practice in your own time.

Breath Enquiry – Connecting mind and body through breath

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart, ground down in your feet and bend your knees with a micro bend or a bigger bend, depending on what helps you to feel connected to the earth. 
  • Imagine your spine running from your head, neck, down your back to your tailbone. 
  • Draw the bottom of your spine to the earth and pull the top of the spine upwards like you are pulling yourself up towards the roof. Start to notice your breath, don’t force or do anything to the breath but let the breath be the guide for you.
  • Once you start to notice your breath exhaling slowly tilt your head down, round your shoulders and curl your spine one by one from neck to tailbone all the way done so that your head starts moving to the floor. 
  • When you reach the end of your breath out and a new breath is drawn in bring yourself back upright again. 
  • Work with this oscillating breath noticing and observing how it feels to let the head, neck and arms drape down as you breathe out. Letting go of any concerns or any thoughts about how far you roll forward and begin to sense and notice your breath entering and leaving your body. 
  • As you continue this enquiry you may notice that the breath begins to lengthen and you may even notice a pause at the end of the breathe out and a pause at the end of the breathe in. Invite your body to trust the breath, invite your mind to notice, witness and allow your breath and body do what it will do, simply noticing, not judging, not forcing but rather curiously allowing your body and breath to work together. 
  • Feel the way the breath expands the lungs and then as the breath leaves they reduce in size, notice the brief moments between this expansion and reduction during which there is stillness.
  • Give over to this rhythmical pattern bringing your attention to this awareness with curiosity and acceptance. 

Reference to read more information about the moving principles of yoga: Farhi, D. (2000). Yoga mind, body & spirit: A return to wholeness. Macmillan.