Today, I’m going back to the basics. When I became a certified yoga teacher, I began by teaching vinyasa flow; the practice of uniting movement and breath. My goal was to introduce the practice to athletes because at the time I felt that it was important for them to learn how to connect mind and body, as this could improve their athletic performance. I enjoyed teaching them because it was different from teaching individuals who were more advanced in their practice. They taught me a lot about being able to verbalize how to attain the ultimate goal of uniting breath and movement. This is often a hard concept to explain or emphasize to beginners or individuals who aren’t yet completely in tuned with their bodies. By teaching them, I was essentially teaching mindfulness from the ground up, and while they struggled in the beginning (mostly with the postures), eventually they were able to distinguish between the physical practice and the mental practice, and their performance on the field ultimately improved. I decided to share some tips for how to teach this concept, as well as tips for the practitioner about attaining the mind body connection.
First, I feel that it’s important to mention that being unable to grasp this concept of uniting breath and movement inhibits the flow of ones daily activities off the mat, and that’s why this practice is important not just for athletes, but for all individuals. It’s also extremely important to find a yoga teacher that can adequately teach this concept because it’s not easy to convey, and if they cannot offer this to their students then the students are just creating weird shapes with their limbs and not necessarily receiving any benefit. The body can move in whatever way we tell it to, the practitioner can breath in and out for as many counts as we tell them to, but being able to consciously breath when the body is in a certain position (uncomfortable or not) and train the mind to be in the present moment is the challenge.
The benefits are conspicuous. When we are able to connect breath with movement we feel less stress, and it becomes easier to handle the task at hand because we’re more focused on what’s right in from of us rather than what we have to do an hour from that moment, the next day or the following week. By taking a few conscious breaths while completing a task, you force yourself to think more clearly as you clear out congested thoughts and stale air. You draw awareness to the lungs, you bring awareness to your body in space. You slow down movement, time, and thought. You draw attention to what you’re doing, and only what you’re doing. You begin to focus. Your brain begins to work more efficiently, and everything else going on around you becomes less important. You begin to manifest the ability to control your life.
Tips for teaching:
Some of these tips may seem redundant and obvious, but I’ve been to way too many classes where the teacher isn’t able to emphasize how important the connection between movement and breath is. When this is the case, the class comes off as a fitness class, and not a yoga class. I hope these tips help!
- Focus on the movement of breath during a warm up for at least 5-7 minuets. With each posture, emphasize the importance of breath moving through the lungs.
- Take a few moments to sit with your students. Physically breath with them to emphasize unity of breath amongst everyone in the class (This ensures that everyone is focused on breath)
- Encourage loud ujjayi breathing (loud ocean sounding breath) throughout the ENTIRE practice. Many teachers offer the concept of ujjayi breathing at the beginning, but forget to remind students to continue with this breathing throughout the practice.
- Explain that when the breath is loud, the mind is more easily able to focus on the breath.
- Being creative is great, but when teaching people to focus on their breath, repeating movement is key. Don’t try to cram a million different postures into one flow. Instead, compose a flow of a few different movements that can be easily connected via breath. For example: move back and forth from down dog and high plank a few times telling practitioners to focus on their inhales and exhales (inhale high plank, exhale down dog).
- Slow down. Get back to basics. People who are new to yoga have no idea what Suyra Namaskar is or what it means. Lead them through it slowly. Use a combination of Sanskrit and English, and emphasize the movement of breath. Even if you’re teaching an advanced class, go through the first couple sun salutations slowly -even advanced yogis need reminders about moving with breath from time to time.
- Take a break at the height of the practice for a few collective breaths. The height of a vinyasa flow is usually a time for working on advancing postures, but what about breath? Some teachers say ‘take this time to take a few breaths to work on an inversion’, but not all students know what to work on. It is more beneficial to instruct an inversion from the beginning (easiest version) to the end (most advanced), and THEN tell everyone to take a few breaths and work on the posture wherever they are. Emphasize breath. (Of course, you may have that one yogi in your class that’s balancing on their head or floating in mid air- let them work on whatever they want, but emphasize the importance of breath). No ones restricted to one pose, but they should be consciously working on advancing.
- At the conclusion of the practice, talk about reconnecting to breath. Obviously as teachers we all do this, but really focus on talking about breath and why it’s beneficial. You may think you do this as a teacher more than you actually do. Talk about noticing the body in space, and about noticing any differences in the body from when the practice began to when it ended. For inspiration about breath click here.
Tips for practicing:
- Close your eyes from time to time, and while your eyes are closed shift your gaze to the middle of your forehead. This is the region where your third eye is. It will help you become more aware of your body in space.
- When moving, constantly redirect your thoughts to your lungs. I like to think of the bottom of my lungs.
- When you move into an unfamiliar position, you may feel slight pain from a stretch -send your breath to that place. Consciously think as you’re inhaling, that the air is filling the space where you feel the stretch. Notice how this pain dissipates.
- When exhaling, try to visualize your breath coming out of the lungs, but also coming out of your roots. For example, when exhaling in down dog, visualize breath leaving the body through your hands palms and your feet. This draws awareness to various parts of your body, and promotes a mindful practice.
- Slow down. Your practice is your practice. No teacher is ever going to be upset that you are moving at your own pace. Do not think of yoga as something you can be good or bad at, and do not think that anyone in the class is judging you.
- Most importantly if you ever feel the need to stop, don’t just sit there like a sack of flesh or get up and leave. Stay on your mat and use your breath to calm yourself down. Come into child’s pose and take some conscious breaths to calm the mind and body. You’ll be able to get back up eventually and continue flowing.