Breathing is central to the Ashtanga yoga practice. I wouldn’t say that Ashtanga is only a breathing practice. But, the breathing is one of several components that is essential to what makes the practice. I say this based on my experience in my personal practice. I also say this based on observing the effects of breathing on students’ practices. During our recent research survey, we had the opportunity to learn more about how practitioners incorporate the breathing aspect in the Ashtanga practice. And we saw how that changed over the long term.
Breathing techniques in Ashtanga
Within the Ashtanga practice, there is some debate about what we call the breathing techniques. Sharath has referred to the breathing techniques as “free breathing with sound.” Previously, the breathing has also been referred to as ujjayi breathing. But it is important to distinguish the ujjayi breathing that we do in asana practice from the formal pranayama practice with the same name. However you want to call the breathing practice, long-term practitioners and teachers generally agree that the breathing is a core component of what makes the Ashtanga practice potentially transformational.
Awareness of breathing among Ashtanga practitioners
So, how much are practitioners focusing on their breathing in their Ashtanga practice? Most practitioners (76%) were aware of their breathing during more than half of their practice. Almost half of respondents (43%) said they were aware of their breathing during most or all of their practice.
There was a small effect of how many years respondents had been practicing on how much of their practice time they were aware of their breathing (p=0.0005; Cramer’s V=0.21). Unsurprisingly, there was a general trend that people who had been practicing longer were aware of their breathing in Ashtanga during more of their practice. This was particularly clear when we looked at the relationship between awareness of breath and number of years of practice.
So what effect is this focus on breathing having? The majority (64%) of survey respondents said that their breathing in Ashtanga felt restricted during less than a quarter of their practice time. So, it seems that giving attention and intention to working with the breath is having the effect of allowing practitioners to breathe with ease in often challenging asanas.
Managing our nervous system through breathing
So why do we emphasize the breathing techniques in the Ashtanga practice? I understand the breathing practice to be about controlling prana. From a physiological perspective, we can affect our internal state by managing the nervous system. One way we can work indirectly on our own nervous system is through the breathing. In practice, we work to roughly balance the length of the inhale and the exhale. This has the effect of increasing the balance of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Additionally, we work to smooth out our breath, breathe through the nose, and lengthen our breaths a bit beyond our habitual, typically short, shallow breaths. And this has a positive effect on our nervous system.
Why is learning how to breathe often so challenging for students?
Learning breathing techniques and making changes to our breathing can be subtle work. It can also tap into something elemental. This is because breathing itself is absolutely necessary to our survival. The practice of making changes to our breathing can bring up all kinds of different emotions. For some, it may simply feel uncomfortable. Maybe the tissues themselves, like the intercostals or the layers of abdominals, are tight. That may restrict our ability to breathe with ease. Or, maybe we have a long history with sports. For that reason, we might typically breathe in a particular way that works for athletics. In that case, it may feel awkward and uncomfortable while we learn a new technique for breathing in Ashtanga yoga.
Changing our breathing patterns, even for just an hour or two during our yoga practice, can also push on more deeply held emotions. Our breathing patterns can be a reflection of our nervous system state. If we have experienced trauma, accidents, injuries, or surgeries, these kinds of things, and many others, can affect our default breathing patterns. This is because they affect the balance of our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. For all of these reasons, it makes sense to go slowly and make small changes to our breathing at a time. The potentially very positive effects of practicing the breathing in Ashtanga make it worth the effort to do this work.