Breathing into Alignment

Is there such a thing as an ideal yoga posture? Is there a perfect side bend? Is there a gold standard forward fold? After a couple decades of practicing and studying many different approaches to modern postural yoga, I’ve heard and read many opinions – even competing ones – about what is ideal. Indeed, I’ve come to experience in my own body that what may be good or right on one day is completely inappropriate on another day. In other words, I believe that what’s ideal is simply what’s right in the moment, right here, right now, in this body, in this place, in this breath.

But what do you say to the yoga student who asks: “am I doing it right?” Answering this question goes to the heart of what we’re actually doing in the yoga room. For new students, there’s usually a sense that it’s about fitness, that they’ve come to yoga as cross-training for other sports or types of movement. And so, the rightness in doing a yoga posture becomes about its physical rightness, about whether the shape is safe, or “properly” expressed, or somehow physically beneficial. And yet, when we talk about physical rightness, we’re into the specialties and domains of personal trainers, physical therapists, kinesiologists, chiropractors, and so many other fields dealing with the physical body. For a typical yoga teacher, these specialties are well beyond their certified scope of practice and personal understanding. What this means is that the typical yoga teacher knows very little about what’s right or ideal or perfect for your body. At best, they can only tell you whether you’re expressing the aesthetic ideal of the pose according to their particular style or lineage of yoga. No wonder there’s so many opinions!

This then begs a question: when you’re in the yoga room, who knows what’s best for you? Well, you do, of course! My view is that yoga is very much a personal inquiry and internal practice. Personal transformation happens from the inside out, not the outside in. There’s even a word for this – “interoception” – meaning “sensitivity to stimuli originating inside the body”. We need to shift to that inner feeling. It’s not what it looks like on the outside, it’s what it feels like on the inside. And for the yoga teacher who’s done the work of going inwards, who’s plumbed the depths of their interior landscapes, this is most certainly a domain of expertise. The work of the yoga teacher is to awaken the student to this inner world, to put the student fully in touch with their inner bodies, and from there, their inner knowing.

And how do you do that? How do you dive in, go deeper, feel the inner sense of things, fully experience being a body? It’s about breathing. Breathing is both automatic and under our control. Breathing happens without thinking and yet you can also control your breath at will. Breathing unites inner and outer. Breathing is the bridge that unites body and mind.

Try it for yourself. As you’re reading this, sit and feel your breath. Relax and breathe. Notice how you feel overall. And now:

  1. Notice the simple and unforced undulations of your breath at the base of your body, in the pelvic diaphragm.
  2. Notice it in the movements of the lower belly.
  3. Notice it at the lower rim of your ribcage.
  4. Notice the feeling of your breath in your throat and nose.
  5. Notice it everywhere in your body at once.

Now, how do you feel? Are you a bit calmer? Less agitated?

Believe it or not, you’ve just taken the first step towards understanding what are called the five internal prana vayus – the movements of breath energy within the body. Finding the ease and rhythm of the breath at these five points will allow you to come into your optimal alignment in any pose. All you need to do is feel your breath and make it feel better. Alignment with your breath is alignment with your inner knowing.

Of course, there’s a lot more to learn about such techniques, which is why I choose to instruct the prana vayus in my yoga classes. I want to give my students better tools for accessing their own depths, for coming to their own truths.

And while in this blog I’ve shifted your focus from your body to your breath, from the outside to the inside, the truth about what’s right lies between these two extremes. Yoga practice is a blending of inner and outer, of feeling and form, of self and other. The physical practices of modern yoga are rapidly evolving, being informed by our deepening understanding of how the body and the mind work independently and together. Functional fitness, the role of fascia, emotional trauma held in the body, and brain science are just a few of the active fields of study and practice where yoga practitioners like you and I are hard at work, bringing their findings back to the yoga room for us to share, learn, and deepen our practice.

Keep practicing. Keep breathing. Keep evolving.

Guy Friswell teaches at the Victoria Yoga Conference Guy Friswell is a local instructor and graduate of the IAYT 500-hour teacher therapist training program, currently working to complete the full 800-hour yoga therapist designation. He has practised yoga regularly since 2003 and has been teaching since 2009, including active weekly classes at several popular Victoria studios. Guy views his yoga teaching as a joyful extension and expression of his personal yoga practice. He is passionate about all things yoga, and always eager to share this passion, both one-on-one and in the classroom. To view his 2018 Conference workshops, click here.