As I settled in to outline class sequences and themes this weekend, I am brought back to a question one of my little yogis asked recently that broke my heart. Before class started she voiced one of today's biggest problems in the yoga room with out even realizing it. She asked: "Why don't all teachers pay attention to the breath? Is it because there is debate about how important the breath is in the practice or how to perform it?” I can still feel my stomach lurch and my heart drop when I think back to this inquiry because the truth is, in a culture that places so much emphasis on the physical and even the immaterially irrelevant ‘value’ of insta-fame or yoga-fame (insert gagging noise here) we have indeed, forgotten the very foundations of our practice and it is heart-breaking, confusing, misleading and ultimately dangerous.
But what is even more chilling and disturbing to me is the fact that my student was right; not all teachers remind their students of the importance of or the proper application of different breathing techniques with in the yoga room. In fact, some teachers are baffled as to why anyone would not exhale through the lips through out class, some are appalled that anyone would sound so obnoxiously loud during a class and some are oblivious as to why certain pranayamas are utilized at certain times of day or for certain therapeutic reasons. Heck, some ‘teachers’ don’t even know the meaning of the word pranayama and this is a HUGE problem; and it needs to be addressed.
There is a problem here; we have become obsessed with pumping out massive amounts of ‘yoga teachers’ out before they are anywhere near ready to undergo training, we have created online courses that you can get through with in only a few days and call yourself a certified yoga instructor, we have created trainings that focus solely on the most popular asanas to teach and we leave behind all the elements of substance that help to sustain our practice and our teachings. We have in essence created chaos with in the realm of the yoga teacher and we have fallen into the false idea that ultimately, a good yoga teacher is that person who will be able to perform the most advanced poses and get the greater amount of likes and followers on social media all the while not paying attention to the fact that our students are getting injured, becoming confused and ultimately not reaping the full spectrum of the benefits of the yoga practice because they are not even being taught the most crucial and basic of things; the breath.
When I started teaching a few years back, this phenomenon hadn’t quite taken over just yet but I saw little glimpses of it here and there (mostly in gymnasiums) but as the years have worn on, I am shocked to now walk into studio after studio where students look at me annoyed and perplexed at the fact that I am asking them to inhale and exhale through their nose, use their diaphragm and let the Ujjayi breath guide their practice rather than the other way around; thus creating a meditation in movement. Even greater is their shock when I demonstrate the resonance found with in the slight constriction of the glottis that comes with Ujjayi breathing and the truth is that this simply should not be; particularly in a vinyasa class (lets acknowledge here again that part of the problem is teachers are not being taught that there are actually different breaths with in each branch of practice and that some techniques will change depending on the type of practice, time of day, Ayurvedic recommendations, etc.).
In fact, if we go back to the teachings of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ujjayi breath is so incredibly powerful that we are encouraged to take this breath into all aspects of our daily live, even while we walk, sit, etc. But this takes us back to one of the main problems we are faced with today; most people teaching yoga these days probably have no idea what the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is or have been exposed to any profound teachings pertaining to the many effects of pranayama on the body. In fact, just recently I was having a conversation with a ‘teacher’ who had never even heard of or knew the meaning of pranayama, prana, nauli, nadis or Ujjayi breathing.
My jaw dropped when I found this out. Because how is it possible that a person who is teaching yoga (and I am going beyond the asana aspect of the practice because yoga as a whole is not just asana and we need to start remembering this) has no clue as to what any of this means? And to not even recognize the names or meanings!? This is a dangerous situation we are putting ourselves and many others into. We are creating more problems and disease with in people’s bodies rather than helping them to truly heal. We are creating stress and disconnect with in the body and we are ultimately doing a huge disservice to the people who are in earnest looking to yoga as a healing tool, a tool for grounding or, heck, even a tool to strengthen the body.
Pranayama in and of itself is not to be learned or practiced with out the tutelage and supervision of a teacher but if out so called teachers are not keen to the subtleties, the practices or even the every existence of these techniques then what chance do our students have to come anywhere near a proper breathing technique?
And lets face it; the way most classes are taught now a days (namely incredibly fast-paced and intense classes that hold little regard for the individual needs and composition of each person or the anatomical and bio-mechanical movements of the body) we are in even more desperate need of proper breathing control. We can not simply move through a whole hour of dangerously fast-paced flows and simply dismiss the breath; this will only further dissension in the mind/body connection and put the student at risk of injury or even over-stimuli of the nervous and cardiovascular systems; which is entirely not the point of the practice to begin with.
The great Krishnamacharya himself emphasized breathing practices as the basis of all movement and taught students to move once the breath itself had begun (the starting point was the breath, the movement simply followed right after). One of his many quotes states the importance of breath and presence of mind by stating: “Where is the delusion when truth is known? Where is the disease when the mind is clear? Where is death when the Breath is controlled? Therefore surrender to Yoga.” - Even some of the more contemporary teachers who were taught he wholeness of the practice as a whole (versus just the asana and the ‘business of yoga’) teach and have always taught the importance of the breath.
Yet at a time when we can pump out more ‘teachers’ than is even imaginable; the proper teachings are being diluted and we are losing the importance and power of the breath. We need to get back to the basics, we need to make sure the people who are ‘teaching’ yoga are indeed teaching the practice as a whole and we need to remember the paramount importance of the breath. There is no life with out breath and there is no true asana practice with out it either; it simply becomes smoke and mirrors and it leads us further from healing than ever before.
Lets never forget the whole tree of yoga and lets remind ourselves and our students of the power of proper breathing techniques with in the yoga room and mat. It is time to get back to the basics and let go of all the extra stuff that has for so long taken over our practice. It is time to let the breath wash over us all and help bring us back to center.