When practicing Asana how do you know how far you can go? How can you approaching your limits without pushing or crossing them? How can you practice without injuring yourself (I’ve heard way to many stories of unjustified Yoga injuries)? Have a quick look at some of the posture descriptions and see what is one of the underlying threads – it’s there in plain sight!
Your breath is your most intimate Yoga teacher – it is a pure reflection of you and only you can hear what it has to say. Your breath reflects your efforts, your pains, your feelings, your focus, etc. It quickly reflects changes even in the unconscious mind. Ujjayi breathing gives your breath a voice – the hissing sound it creates is a direct channel of information at your service.
Listening to your breath
Incorporate Ujjayi breathing into your physical practice. First practice it in a neutral body position. Get familiar with the hissing sound of the breath in this neutral position. When you use it in asana it may change. When effort increases the breath usually become shorter and the hissing sound will become louder and more coarse.
When your Ujjayi breath becomes erratic and inconsistent you can no longer contain the practice you are doing. You are over-doing. But, and this is a very interesting experience, when you think you can’t go any further but your Ujjayi breathing is steady and calm you can continue and will be able to contain additional effort. Experiencing this for the first time can be an eye-opener. Often times, the mind experiences inhibition before the body and the breath do – the mind puts on the breaks expecting a collision that hasn’t and may never occur.
Processing the information
Assuming your breath-teacher is whispering in your ear (or throat in this case) – you need to have time to assimilate the information. You need to be still. One way to create this space is by enhancing your relationship with Ujjayi breathing by placing the movement inside the breath. This will create a space of stillness between every inhale and exhale. Each such junction is a space of transformation – in which one part of the breath is completed and another begins – the direction of breathing is reversed. If tensions have accumulated in your practice, they will be revealed in these junctions. If you’ve pushed too far on the inhale you may find it difficult to begin a soft exhale. If you’ve pushed too far on the exhale you may find that your inhale is sudden and that you are gulping up air to compensate for over-exertion.
Acting on the information
Now that you have this wealth of information what can you do with it? Change your practice. Make this round your last, do a softer variation of the posture, change your focus for the posture, stay longer, stretch further, stop and let the breath settle – there are many things you can do. You can make such changes tomorrow or next week (the next time you practice) but you can also make them right now.
To do this you will need more refinement and more space to change your intentions. One way to do this is to place the movement inside the breath and the breath inside your intentions. This creates a space and time in which both the body and the breath are still. Only attention continues to move and it can make choices that alter the practice.
When to begin?
An asana practice is usually made up of sequences of postures. A question you should ask yourself before any sequence and any asana is “am I ready?”. You should approach every single posture with readiness in the body, in the mind and in the heart. Luckily the breath provides a concise and integrated view of the entire system. My teacher has summed this up in a wonderfully simple observation: you are ready when the breath is no longer demanding, instead it is at your service.
We don’t often bend and twist into ridiculous-looking postures when we are away from the mat – at the office, walking down the street, socializing. We do make many transitions during the day and we do immerse ourselves in activities that require effort and focus. It is not the postures of Yoga that we take with us off-the-mat. It is the qualities of attention and practice that continue to move inside us and manifest off-the-mat.
Take time to arrive. Take time to see if you know what you intend to do, if the conditions are right and if you are prepared. Take time to observe yourself in action. Take time to make adjustments when adjustments need to be made. When meeting other people take time to observe them arriving and to making a connection. Create spaces.