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Yoga: Why Breathing Takes Practice

Yoga newbies, this one’s for you!

5 tips for getting through the postures in your next yoga class.


“Exhale into Downward Dog and stay here for five breaths.”

I can count to five – I’ve got this…

After what feels like minutes turning into hours, my instructor says soothingly, “Four more breaths.” Slight panic sets in. Four more breaths sounds pretty damn close to FOUR-EVER.

Peering through my legs, I compared my beginner’s posture to the seasoned professionals in the room. They make it look so easy… so enjoyable. Was it supposed to suck this much? And how is it possible that doing nothing could hurt so strangely? Maybe new things always have a certain level of ‘suck.’

The instructor counted down and we arrive at “One.” I drop to my knees and thank the yoga gods for inventing Child’s Pose.

For those of you new to yoga, you are not alone in feeling like you might be missing something or that it shouldn’t be this hard to hold still. We are asked at the beginning of class to leave our day at the door and shut off our minds while we focus on our breath. The simplicity of this task is bizarre. The overstimulated state of life creates an undulating wave of uncertainty in the calming realm of yoga practice. As humans we want what we cannot have, we search for what we cannot find. Therefore, the challenge of creating a quiet mind for a single hour can be a war-like conquest.

After ten years of practice, I decided to dip my toe in a bit of teaching. A few friends wanted to give yoga a try, but they didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare. While not a professionally trained yogi, I offered to walk them through the basics. My introduction included ujjayi breathing, an approachable vinyasa, and how to support postures through proper hand and feet placement. Yet after a handful of classes, something was missing.

I put myself in their shoes and thought, “What would I really want to know if I was a newbie?” Teenage driving lessons struck me as an oddly related memory. The instructor told me to look over my left shoulder and then my right before changing lanes – nothing more nothing less. What he failed to mention was why I should do this, that it was a blind spot and I should be looking for cars I can’t see in other places. I didn’t fully understand the mechanics until evidence presented itself. So, perhaps my friends would like to see through the blind spots of yoga. What should you be doing while holding a single pose? What are you allowed to do? How do others mentally and physically push through long postures? While I couldn’t transfer ten years of experience into their minds and bodies, I could give them a bit of a checklist.

The next class I taught was built around those laborious five-breath postures I mentioned earlier. We worked through the following steps for each pose:

Breath 1:
Roll your shoulders back and down.
Feel your shoulder blades cascade down your back and discover the awareness you now have. Feel the connection between your head, neck, shoulders, chest, and arms. Consider the sensation before and after rolling your shoulders down. Make micro adjustments as needed.

Breath 2:
Activate your core.
Keeping your abdomen engaged will promote the health of your back and therefore support above and below your center. You should notice a slight reduction in stress in your lower back.

Breath 3:
Tilt your hips and point that tail bone towards the floor.
As a runner with weak hips, this micro movement doubles as an active stretch to further strengthen my strides through the hip flexors. You may also notice your buttocks tightening– this is a good thing! A strong butt is a beautiful butt.

Breath 4:
Play with your feet and toes.
If your feet are flat on the floor, lift your toes and feel the difference in your balance. Soak in the sensation of what parts of the foot are connected to the ground and what may not be. Try to get all four corners of the foot to connect. Pause and reflect on the difference this small movement has made. If your feet are tucked (Child’s Pose or Downward Dog for example), pay attention to the needs of the fascia of your feet. Stretch the bottom of the foot by walking the feet or sitting back deeply.

Breath 5:
Push the breath into your tightest spot.
If there is any spot that is particularly tight or tired, breath in and send the exhale to that spot. Push that breath through the toughest spot to come out on the other side, ready to flow into the next posture.


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