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How to Combine Yoga Breathing and Postural Movement

In Hatha Yoga, breathing is just as important as the postures. How you breathe when you’re moving into, holding, or moving out of any given posture can greatly increase the efficiency and the benefits of your practice. Think of the breath as mileage plus. The more you use breathing consciously, the more mileage you gain for your health and longevity. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Let the breath surround the movement. The breath leads the movement by a couple of moments; that is, you initiate breathing (both inhalation and exhalation), and then you make the movement. When you inhale, the body opens or expands, and when you exhale, the body folds or contracts.

  • Both the inhalation and the exhalation end with a natural pause.

  • In the beginning, let the breath dictate the length of the postural movement. For example, if you’re raising your arms as you inhale and you run out of breath before you reach your goal, just pause your breathing for a moment and then bring your arms back down as you exhale. With practice, your breath gradually gets longer.

  • Let the breath itself be your teacher. When your breath sounds labored, you need to back off or come out of a posture.

  • Try to visualize the breath flowing into the area you’re working with any given posture.

Breath in four directions with Yoga

You can move your body in four natural directions:

  • Flexion: Bending forward

  • Extension: Bending backward

  • Lateral flexion: Bending sideways

  • Rotation: Twisting your body

Normally, when people move they tend to hold or strain their breath. In Yoga, you simply follow the natural flow of the breath. As a rule, adopt this pattern:

  • Inhale when moving into back bends.

  • Exhale when moving into forward bends.

  • Exhale when moving into side bends.

  • Exhale when moving into twists.


The roles of movement and holding in Yoga postures

Most Yoga books talk about stationary or held Yoga postures (asanas). Before trying to hold a posture, become acquainted with moving in and out of postures, and following the rules of breath and movement. When you can move in and out of a given posture easily and confidently, try holding the posture for a short period without holding or straining your breath.

You know you’re straining when your face turns into a grimace or you feel it going red like a tomato. Getting a handle on moving into and out of the postures before adding the element of holding is important for three reasons:

  • It helps prepare your muscles and joints by bringing circulation to the area. It’s like juicing up your joints, which adds a safety factor.

  • It helps you experience the intimate connection between body, breath, and mind.

  • In the case of stretching postures, moving in and out of a given posture before holding the posture supports the concept of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF). If you tighten a muscle before stretching it either by gentle resistance (isotonic) or by pushing against a fixed force (isometric), the subsequent stretch is deeper than just using a static pose. Scientific research supports this phenomenon.

The Yoga Miracle

To see and experience firsthand the power of PNF in the context of Yoga, grab yourself a partner and follow these instructions for The Yoga Miracle. You find that you can achieve a deeper stretch than you normally would.

  1. Lie on your back, with your left leg bent and your left foot on the floor; your right leg is up in the air and slightly bent.

    Ask your partner to kneel in the lunge position near your feet.

  2. Have your partner test the flexibility of your hamstrings by holding the back of your right heel and pushing it gently towards you until you reach the first resistance point.

    The partner on the floor is relaxed and doesn’t resist. Be sure not to force anything.

  3. Bring your right leg back to the starting point and then begin to push against the kneeling partner’s hand.

    The kneeling partner now either gently resists your right foot completely (isometrically) or allows your foot to move a little with resistance (isotonically).

    Both tests produce the same effect. As you push against your partner’s hand, your right hamstring muscles tighten. You want these muscles to tighten for about ten seconds.

  4. After approximately ten seconds, the partner on the ground relaxes the right leg and then allows the standing partner to repeat Step 2.

    Compare the results to those from the original Step 2 stretch and behold the Yoga Miracle!

Don’t try to push your partner over, just push until you feel your leg muscles tighten. Next, after about ten seconds, release your leg and allow your partner to stretch you again by gently pushing against your heel, causing your leg to move toward you in a stretch that’s not forced. See how far you can extend this time. You may be pleasantly surprised!

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