What do the Yoga Sutras Say About Breathing?

Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about breathing?

A: Putanjali outlines several obstacles that prevent us from calming the mind (disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, delusion, spiritual failure, and instability in the yogic state). He explains that irregular breathing is one of the symptoms of these obstacles’ presence:

These obstacles are accompanied with sorrow, despair, restlessness of the body and irregular breathing (1.31)

Hence, it makes sense that in many yoga classes, teachers will encourage students to observe the quality of the breath to gauge mindfulness, moderation, and equanimity. Putanjali also suggests doing specific breathing practices to calm the mind:

[The mind become tranquil though] controlled exhalation and retention of the breath. (1.34)

Pranayama, which means control of the life force through breath, is the fourth limb of yoga, which comes after asana (the poses):

After perfection of the posture is achieved, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama. (2.49)

It’s one thing to be able to do a steady, comfortable, and joyful handstand, arm balance, or back bend. It’s another to also control the breath. Adding in pranayama is what begins to take postures beyond gymnastics and into the realm of yoga. Putanjali doesn’t tell us how to breath, but instead gives us some variables to play with:

Pranayama has external, internal and fixed movements. When regulated according to place, time, and number, they may be either long or short. (2.50)

Different combinations of all of these factors are what make up the various pranayama breathing exercises we practice in yoga class.

There is a fourth sphere of breath control that goes beyond the other three and is transcendental. As a result, the covering of the inner light dwindles away. And fitness of the mind for concentration is gained. (2.51-2.53)

Pranayama is the basis for our journey through the last four limbs of yoga, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation, and non-dualistic consciousness.

I am more than I know myself to be

When I was a young teen, I used to scour the internet for uplifting quotes that inspired me me to step beyond my perceived limitation, to believe, to hope, and to dream. Years before ever setting foot on a yoga mat, one of the many powerful affirmations I had scrawled in colorful pen in my high school agenda book was “I am more than I know myself to be.” Yoga philosophy is not something someone has to teach us, it is already inside us. It is in our curiosity, in our intuition, and in our wisdom. When a concrete version of yoga philosophy was finally laid out for me in my first yoga teacher training it a huge aha moment for me. It wasn’t that I had learned something new, it was that what I knew all along had been revealed.

I am more than i know myself to be

I am more than i know myself to be

Just one of many related quotes from Shakti Mhi, the teacher of my first yoga teacher training:

Imagine taking a piece of gold and melting it into different forms of jewelry, such as earrings, a ring, a bracelet or a necklace. You show the jewelry to person A, asking him what he sees and he says, “I see earrings, a ring, a bracelet and a necklace.” You show them to person B, asking him what he sees and he says “I see gold.” Person A represents the small self that sees forms and identifies with them. Person B represents the observer who sees the essence beyond forms.

Why Yoga Bootcamp?

After ten years teaching fitness and yoga and seven years studying Kinesiology and Cognitive Science I’m finally putting it all together: In January, I’m teaching Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp at Thriveability in San Francisco. This four-week transformational series combines yoga and meditation with fitness and goal-setting to provide students safe, fun, and motivating, complete mental, physical, and spiritual workout. Here’s why I’m so hyped up about it:

Why Yoga?

Side Plank with Tree

Side Plank with Tree (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Yoga is the foundation. It is the ultimate system for letting go of what no longer serves us, coming into acceptance of who we truly are, and realizing our divine purpose. Without the work we do in yoga (or other systems that guide us to develop in the same way), any action we take or goal we set is directionless and purposeless. The present moment awareness that yoga cultivates provides us a springboard from which we can take mindful, intentional action. Also, yoga helps us develop body awareness and flexibility, feels amazing, and is just plain fun.

Why Not Just Yoga?

As with any other type of paradigm that involves physical activity, there are common patterns of muscle imbalance that can arise when yoga is our only form of regimented movement (these imbalances often aren’t from the yoga, we come in with them and can reinforce them in yoga if we’re not careful). Even if we have yoga teachers who enforce alignment meticulously, it doesn’t mean we will rehabilitate these imbalances; often, it means we are discouraged from going into positions where our body shows signs of that imbalance. Yoga is not supposed to be about ego or goals, so we should be content with backing off and taking it easy, right? This is great for avoiding injuries on the mat, but it avoids problems rather than addressing them, so it allows us to retain imbalances that may lead to injury off the mat during our day-to-day movements.

It’s so amazing and healing to be able to think to yourself, it’s okay that I can’t do handstand. I’m perfect the way I am. But, without losing touch with that thought, it’s also worthwhile to question, why can’t I do handstand? Where am I losing the energy that is supposed to be holding me up? If the energetic bottleneck is something physical, it’s doesn’t really make sense to address it only with the spiritual practice of yoga (especially if you’ve been doing yoga for years and nothings changed). Drawing on the extensive knowledge of kinesiologists, exercise specialists, fitness instructors, and physical therapists would be much more directed and intentional.

Why Fitness?

Core Twist

Core Twist (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Fitness helps us fill in the gaps of our yoga practice so we can maintain strong, healthy, functional, injury-free bodies. Developing body awareness, stability, strength, endurance, and power using fitness allows us to practice a broader range of poses safely. Often, the physically challenging poses offered as options in yoga classes will only ever be available to those who already have the fitness to do them (or who gain that fitness outside of yoga). Regular yoga classes often don’t provide the frequency, intensity, and type of movements to elicit the significant training effects needed to build the strength for a challenging pose like handstand.

For example, in yoga we do moderate-intensity core work as part of our warm-up or prep-work to bring awareness and circulation into the core and prime these vital muscles for the rest of class. It makes the core more able to contract properly in the short term. In fitness, we do high-intensity core work toward the end of class. The goal in this case is to fatigue the muscles, which is essential for improving strength and endurance over time. However, it makes the core less able to contract in the moment, which is why it’s safer to do at the end of class.

Personal Experience: After doing both yoga and fitness for years, I cancelled my gym membership and started doing vinyasa yoga almost exclusively. It only took a year of this for me to developed some painful imbalances and hypermobilities in my body that kept getting worse the more I practiced yoga. Everyone told me to stick to gentle classes, but the gentle poses made me feel worse than anything else. It wasn’t until I started doing Pilates and rehabilitative exercises that my body finally started recovering. Not only was I in less pain, as I strengthened my glutes, my hip flexibility increased instead of decreasing. Once my body was more stable it was safer for it to open up. As I strengthened my core to support my aching spine, a side effect was that poses that had never been accessible to me before started showing up. All of a sudden I could stick a handstand–if only for a couple seconds. I began to see poses like handstand not as an end goal, but as a check-in on stability, integrity, balance, and body awareness.

Doing fitness is not only about the physical benefits, there’s a philosophical aspect to it, too. It’s one thing to have a vision and a purpose, and even to clearly see your path (yoga and meditation are phenomenal forms of self-study that allow you to establish these things). It’s another thing to have the drive and know-how to follow the path toward your intention. In one of my college classes, we learned that will power is like a muscle: if you overuse it, it becomes burnt out; but if you practice it regularly without exhausting it, you’ll slowly build its strength and endurance. By adding fitness into our weekly practice, which–unlike yoga–is goal-oriented, we develop our tenacity, our determination, our perseverance, and our will. When we experience ourselves achieving our what we said we would achieve (especially if the goal was audacious), we begin to trust our own words, and our intentions become more powerful.

Why Inversions and Arm Balances?

Eka Pada Galavasana

Eka Pada Galavasana (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

1. They’re fun.

2. They are informative. If you wanted know where you tend to collapse in your body, do handstand and you’ll find out immediately. While many other poses whisper bits and pieces of feedback that are easy to miss, arm balances and, even more so, inversions give you a full presentation on a loudspeaker with PowerPoint slides.

3. They are empowering. The first time we see an inversion or an arm balance, our immediate reaction is, I can’t. But then (after a little work, perseverence, and guidance), it turns out we can, it helps us re-evaluate other possibilities in your life we’ve dismissed. Very few things are impossible. It just takes practice to identify and diligently follow the path to your wildest dreams.

Why So Often? Why so long? Why so early?

I want Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp to remind you how powerful you and inspire you to tap into that power to achieve your divine purpose. The program is 5-days-a-week (Monday to Friday) at 6am for 4 weeks. To make radical changes in our lives, we must practice new habits regularly and for a sustained period. We alternate what we do everyday so we never end up with overworked or fatigued, and we take weekends off to we can recharge our will power and maintain balance in our lives. As with any program for improving fitness, it takes six weeks to see significant results, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on experiencing what your capable of by cutting the program any shorter. However, for now, we’re offering a trial version of the program that’s only four weeks long, which is a little easier to commit to. Stay tuned for the full six-week version.

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

6am is earlier than most of us have anything planned, so there aren’t many excuses for not showing up. It’s hard to get up that early for six whole weeks, but each of us knows we’re capable of it–it’s another way we will develop will power. Also, when we’re waking up that early every day, we start to feel the effects of our lifestyles. They’re amplified. If we pay a even an iota of attention to our energy levels, it will become painfully apparent which lifestyle choices allow us to get out of bed and do an intense workout first thing in the morning, and which leave us running late, groggy, and unable to harness our power.

See you bright and early on January 6th at Thriveability!

I am so excited to share this program with you. I truly, wholeheartedly believe it will help you realize your purpose, develop the skills to achieve it, and learn some fun poses along the way.

What are the ethical principles associated with yoga?

Q: What are the ethical principles associated with yoga?

A: In the Yoga Sutras, Putanjali lists five yamas, hindrances, and five niyamas, observances, which make the the first two of his eight limbs of yoga. The yamas teach us how to treat others and the niyamas teach us how to treat ourselves. They are as follows:

1. Ahimsa – Nonviolence
2. Satya – Truthfulness
3. Asteya – Nonstealing
4. Brahmacharya – Moderation or Sexual Responsibility
5. Aparigraha – Non-possessivenes

1. Saucha – Purity
2. Santosha – Contentment
3. Tapas – Self-discipline
4. Svadhyaya – Self-study
5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender

What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana?

Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana (yoga poses)?

A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the highest stage of enlightenment is reached in seven stages, and asana (the practice of yoga poses) is the third stage. Putanjali describes asana in three sutras:

The posture should be steady, comfortable and grounded in joy. (2.46)

When I was younger my unconscious philosophy was something like, “exercise should be recklessly fast, numbingly intense, and fueled by anger.” Exercise worked as a great coping mechanism for me. When I roller-bladed as fast as a could, I was so focused on not falling that there wasn’t room to worry about anything else. The aching in my muscles during a long run superseded aching in my heart. Exercise was something I could channel uncomfortable emotions into instead of letting them eat away at me. It was also empowering to see my body getting strong and healthy. It was a great band-aid for a while, but eventually it stopped working.

In my early twenties, I was experiencing a deeper heartbreak than I’d felt before, and no matter how vigorously and desperately I exercised, I couldn’t block it out. Then, in the midst of my suffering I discovered vinyasa yoga, and it was transformational. Through the metaphor of asana (poses), my teachers taught me to be still and notice my emotions, even if I wanted nothing more than to resist them and block them out—steadiness. They taught me that whatever was going on in my head, it was okay to be feeling was I was feeling—comfortableness. Through time and practice, I learned that my worth was defined by more than getting having a boyfriend, getting into a challenging yoga pose, or even being strong and healthy; I found out I was more than all of those labels—joy.

Posture is mastered by relaxation of effort and meditation on the unlimited. (2.47)

I tell my students that practicing asana is practicing for life. If we are able to relax our gripping, gritting, or gnashing and maintain a meditative state during a challenging pose, we are more likely to connect to that mindfulness when someone cuts us off in traffic or when our hearts get broken. In San Francisco, I teach an intermediate vinyasa class in which we practice challenging postures that Putanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras), probably wouldn’t have dreamed recommending for meditation. I constantly remind students that it’s not about the pose itself; the pose is just a construct to test your ability to relax and be mindful. In this respect, sometimes the more advanced variation of a pose is the one that challenges your strength and flexibility; sometimes it’s the one that’s physically easier, but challenges you to let go of our ego.

When posture is mastered there is a cessation of disturbances caused by dualities. (2.48)

Our minds operate by identifying opposites. It’s built into our language and logic. We understand light because we can contrast it a lack of light (dark). We understand ourselves as entities different from our environment, different from others. Sometimes we even dissociate our own body, mind, and spirit. These aren’t bad things, we need them to survive. But, they create an illusion of separation which can be a source of deep suffering.

I’ve already mentioned that through my personal asana practice lines between things I thought were separate began to blur: as I learned to practice with physical grace, I began to cope with my emotions more gracefully too. As I relaxed in the face of intensity on the mat, I was more able to handle stress and conflict off the mat. As my practice of mindfulness developed, I began to notice my profound effect on my environment, and my environment’s fundamental effect on me. The labels that used to define me and set me apart from others started to drop off. I began to think that maybe my sense of self was more of a pragmatic, survival-based construct that a metaphysical (real) one. As the edges of my identity began to dissipate, I considered that maybe there is something that has no opposite. Something that is everything. Something unlimited that connects us all; that is us all.