Breath is one of the most important elements of any yoga practice. I always begin my yoga classes with a few minutes of quiet observation of the breath. Just noticing where you breathe in your body is an important tool for assessing where you are in that moment. Then after you observe your natural breath, you can slowly deepen the breath using your exhalations. Get rid of the stale air that you have been holding in your lungs to create room for fresh air. After the breath is full and deep I invite students into my favorite opening ritual, taking three breaths in through the nose and out the mouth with a big sigh. This allows students to release at least some of that tension and mind chatter before we begin our asana practice. At the end of class, when we are back to our simple seat, Sukasana, I end class with the same ritual. At the end of every class, those three final breaths are always stronger and more vibrant than at the beginning. I can tell that my students have created more space in their bodies.
Finally, I bought my own copy of “The Breathing Book” by Donna Farhi, it is an incredible text that I kept borrowing from the library or other yogis and finally I just got my own. It is so worth it, because it is a book you can spend an endless amount of time with. There are fantastic inquiries, or exercises that you can work with to explore how you can breathe more easily and vibrantly. I love the way Farhi describes this process of working with breath:
Breathing fully is not a matter of adding anything, of acquiring some new technique, or striving to improve oneself. Discovering the naturalness of our breaths has to do with the uncovering or the removing of obstacles that we have constructed to the breath, both consciously and unconsciously. In this sense, this book is a guide to a process of deconstruction, of unlearning and clearing the way.
When we are born, we breathe fully in and out with no effort or thought about it. It is over time that our emotions, life circumstance and cultural expectations that we restrain our breath and in doing so, limit our own vitality. One example is the beauty ideal of the flat stomach, instead of allowing the breath to fill the belly, many people hold the breath so as to appear slimmer. But our breath is related to all of our vital organs, it is what keeps us alive. Farhi offers practical and in depth ways to gently let go of that holding and embrace vitality.
Cyclists especially can benefit from breath work. In the back of the book there are “Practice Guides” for specific breathing conditions, one being for improved athletic performance. As you ride your bicycle it is important to find a rhythm with your breath and movement:
You can do that by taking a breath when you plant your foot during a stride, when pedaling on a cycle, or when you stroke the water in the pool. Find a rhythm and speed of movement that allows you to work within the confines of your breath capacity, so that you are not building up and oxygen deficit.
It is not only important to listen to your body about finding a pace and speed that works for you, but also finding proper body alignment that lets you really breathe fully. All to often I see cyclists hunching over the handlebars, completely ignoring the alignment of their spine. In this hunched over position there is no way that one can breathe to the fullest capacity. Farhi notes:
If you tire easily, examine your posture carefully. This means not hunching over you handlebars on the bike, but opening the space between the tip of your breastbone and your belly.
By creating that length in your body, you give yourself room to breathe deeply. Each inhalation nourishes every cell in your body and every exhalation allows you to detoxify and create that space for a nourishing inhale. So, please cyclists, slide those shoulders back and down away from the ears and breathe fully as you pedal.
If you enjoyed this exploration on the importance of breath, you will love what is in my upcoming zine Pedal, Stretch, Breathe. I explore breath in the bigger picture, as it relates to our communities and overall air quality. Please support this project on Kickstarter now!