Breathing should be easy, right? But one of the most common complaints I hear is about the breath, whether it's "I keep messing up the breathing," or "I don't know whether to inhale or exhale," or even "Can I breathe now?" as they turn blue and fall over.
It's true, yoga without the breath is just stretching. The asanas (the physical poses) were created to strengthen the body so the practitioner could sit longer in meditation, the gateway to meditation being the breath.
Remember the Eight Limbs of Yoga? I mention them in class from time to time but I'm realistic enough to appreciate limited memory retention when you're moving your body in new and interesting ways. Crash course below:
Yama ~ universal ethics
Niyama ~ self-disciplines
Asana ~ physical postures
Pranayama ~ breath control
Pratyahara ~ withdrawal of the senses
Dharana ~ concentration
Dhyana ~ meditation
Samadhi ~ bliss, union
Each limb prepares for the one that follows and mastered together they are a handy, easy-to-follow blueprint for spiritual enlightenment. Notice that the physical postures are nearer to the beginning of this journey than breath control. Asana supports the development of breath control, but mastery of pranayama is considered more important than being able to get your leg behind your head.
Why? Because the breath supports the uninterrupted flow of prana ~ life force ~ around the body promoting health, healing and a longer life. In yogic philosophy, living longer isn't for the purpose of watching more box sets; it's to buy you time, to give you a greater chance of reaching enlightenment.
So now I've driven home how important the breath is just after you've expressed anxiety about doing it all wrong, I'm now going to tell you to...
... chill the hell out.
Call me contrary.
The thing is, there is very often (but not always) no anatomical advantage for the inhale/exhale instruction during asana. Think of Cat/Cow. On the exhalation, the back is arched towards the ceiling, the received wisdom being that you're making your body smaller so it makes sense to exhale. But looking at things from an anatomical point of view, your lungs are actually bigger at the back so the instruction to exhale in Cat pose is nonsense. Drop on all-fours and give it a go, switching the breath to inhale on Cat and exhale on Cow. (I actually find it preferable breathing this way, but you may feel differently. I'd love to hear about your experience.)
Bottom line? If you're inhaling when everyone else is exhaling, relax. To be honest, I'm thrilled you're still breathing because holding the breath signals to the brain that things aren't optimum and it then puts the body on notice for fight or flight ~ blood pressure rises, muscles tense and you can say goodbye to touching your toes.
So breathe. Inhale/exhale, exhale/inhale, don't worry. It will all come in time. And when there is an advantage in breathing a certain way at a certain point in our asana practice ~ such as jump backs and jump throughs ~ be sure I'll let you know.