What is Yoga: Learning how to breathe properly

What is Yoga? Stretching, chanting OM, a workout, sitting in the ‘pretzel’-posture all day meditating, a naked Indian Sadhu standing on his head, a naked Indian Sadhu levitating? To the uninitiated, Yoga might appear to be an Indian mystic cult…. but not quite.

Yoga is a five thousand year old science and philosophy, which describes how our mind works or rather, its’ mal-functioning; it offers a means to tackle the consistent battle with our obsessive thoughts and behavioural patterns, and to free ourselves from those.

Patanjali, a sage who lived about 500 BC, outlined the workings of our mind in the Yoga Sutras. Ancient wisdom previously passed down orally was now gathered and written down in 195 succinct aphorisms.

The sutras contain very practical tools as to how to proceed on our yoga journey. A facet of Yoga probably best known today is the practice of postures or asanas, which form one of the ‘Eight Limbs’ of Yoga, which Patanjali wrote about. They need to be taught by an experienced and qualified teacher, which we assume is the reason for Patanjali dedicating only three sutras of the 195 in his book, to the physical practice of postures. You can’t learn them simply by reading about them.

The asanas are great fun, as many of us are experiencing more or less regularly – hopefully more than less regularly! – and bring us back in touch with ourselves. They help us to discover muscles in our body we didn’t know existed, and make us feel emotionally rejuvenated, energized, and certainly more healthy.

Often when I start teaching a beginner course I ask the students what brought them to Yoga? The most frequent answer to this question is ‘I would like to learn how to relax, and how to breathe properly’. This is when I am getting a big smile on my face, thinking gleefully – but expressing it verbally in a more subdued way – ‘you have come to exactly the right place’!

The method of Ashtanga Yoga especially lends itself perfectly to learning how to breathe well. If you could simply sit down and focus, you would probably connect with your breath rather well. But the true magic happens only once you start to move with the breath in an intelligent and controlled manner (practicing Yoga postures). Your breath will automatically deepen and lengthen without you even noticing, because you are so busy putting your limbs into some simple or more convoluted positions. Once you have worked through a series of postures designed and adjusted to your needs, you ‘take rest’ – as Guruji, Sri K Pattabhi Jois used to say – and after that you are ready to delve into the exploration of just the breath.

Pranayama, the fourth limb of Yoga is often called the ‘control’ of the breath. I like to think of it as ‘prana ayama’ i.e. ‘prana = life source’, ‘a = non’ and ‘yama = constraint’ – the un-obstructing or release of breath/life force. Practicing certain breathing patterns, designed and adapted to be comfortably manageable by each individual, will allow you to penetrate an even deeper layer of your being, way beyond the physical. Pranayama does wonders for your energy levels, and can be used to energize and equally calm/sedate you. It’s such a precious gift to have at your disposal! And it’s free!

There is so much more to Yoga than just asanas and pranayama. To fully explore the topic ‘What is Yoga’, is obviously beyond the scope of this reflection, and this is only the first of a series of articles I will be writing about this vast system. So look out for the next one.

But there is something I’d like to share, just one thing the old masters were adamant and very clear about: Yoga postures and breathing have to be learned in the physical presence of a well-trained and experienced teacher.

It is safe and efficient only if a teacher guides, and more so, corrects you during the process of your learning. Only the exposure to each other’s energy makes a true teacher/student connection possible. This connection is the basis for a fruitful developing of the skills required to learn the yoga postures, how to breathe properly, and eventually, to advance on the path to freedom.

Yoga Sutra I.2: Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah
Yoga is the ability to direct the focus of the mind exclusively toward one object, and to sustain this direction without distraction.

OM Shanti,