“Breathe into your hamstring.”
“Breathe the tension away.”
…What the heck does that mean?
Anatomically speaking, the instruction to breathe into your muscles is bunk. The lungs are in the chest and are the only place the air you breathe directly flows into. Yet, what an amazing feeling it is when you feel the prana, or life-force energy, that rides the wave of your breath penetrate and relieve tension. It’s a technique critical for progress in asana and one that makes the practice vastly more interesting and enjoyable.
The first time this cue made sense to me, I found my standing forward fold transformed from my fingers grazing the ground to my torso resting flat against my thighs. This took a matter of minutes. Ever since figuring out the meaning of this cue, my practice is more efficient and progress greater. My focus is sharper, body awareness massively enhanced, and ability to let negativity go improved. I get to spend more time on other activities, like writing this article.
The goal of this article is to explain the ever-pervasive cue, “Breathe into your muscles” (and similar cues). I hope this technique will radically augment your yoga asana practice, and thereby give you the time and energy to pursue your other hobbies and passions. Be sure to let me know if you have any questions or successes by contacting us.
- Try this technique in a static pose where you feel a gentle stretch and which you can sustain comfortably for 2-3 minutes. Janu Sirsasana (Head-To-Knee Forward Fold), Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle), and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) are some ideas to get started. Also, be sure to warm up with at least five to ten minutes of movement beforehand.
- Take a couple of minutes to attune yourself to your breath. You may practice a Dirga pranayama (3-part-breath) or simply breathe mindfully. Encourage a deep, long, rhythmic, and symmetrical breathing pattern. Pay attention to how your torso rises with the inhales and naturally reverts to relaxation with the exhales.
- Enter the yoga pose to a degree where you feel the sensation of a gentle stretch. Take a few moments to bring your focus into your muscles. Identify the point where you feel the most tension or resistance.
- With your inhales, feel as if you are filling up the area of tension or resistance with air. If it helps, you can imagine little lungs that you breathe into at that location. Try not to be too analytical about this step, really feel as if your muscle expands with the inhale.
- With your exhales, allow your muscle to let go of tension. Just as your torso relaxes with exhalations, so too does your muscle. Most of your flexibility is neuromuscular – through proper thought and breathing you can enter into deeper and deeper manifestations of the yoga pose.
Think about relaxing into your couch after a long day. You plop down, grab your fuzziest blanket, take a deep inhale, and melt with your exhale. You let go and it’s like every muscle becomes pudding. So nice.
- Be sure that the stretch you practice this technique with is gentle. If the sensation is too intense, you will run into many difficulties trying to relax with the exhales. Start easier than you think you should.
- If you are having difficulty with this technique, try not to get flustered or frustrated. Reactive emotional responses like this will cause more tension (imagine how uncomfortable the couch gets when your boss calls). Instead, enjoy the relaxing effects of deep breathing as these results will be healthy regardless.
- Excuse the Mr. Miyagi advice, but it is a great paradox of many yoga-based techniques that the more you want results, the less you will experience them. Try to practice for the enjoyment and curiosity, and not for the fruits of the action.
- If your awareness is sharp, during and after your exhales you may feel the sensation of a gentle dispersion of electrical current from the point of tension. This sensation has been confirmed by myself and most experienced yogis I have investigated the topic with. Once you feel this sensation, you will find your progress skyrocketing. However, you must cultivate the relaxed focus of a seasoned meditator to do so.