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Yoga Sutras for Modern Day Life: Calm Breath, Calm Life

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: 1:34- Or the calmness can be retained by the controlled inhalation or retention of the breath

 

Defining the Sutra:

Starting with vs 1:33, Patanali lists ways to stay calm.  Controlling the breath is one of them. Depending on who you talk to, some say that Patanjali is referring to retaining the breath after exhalation. Some say this verse is just a general reference to breath and no technique is being given. They all agree that Patanjali is saying that controlling the breath is a way to keep the mind calm.

Modern Day Applications

You don’t need a yogi to tell you that controlling the breath is great for regulating emotions and the body’s response to stress. During shots, piercings or when blood is drawn, the technician or medical professional often gives the instruction to take a big inhale and on the exhale, the needle goes in.  Women take birthing classes that teach how to use the breath to help with the pain of the birthing experience. When the average person gets worked up, they take deep breaths to calm down. The yogis just kicked it up a notch by learning how different breathing techniques had different effects and systematized their findings into pranayama/breathing techniques.

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Why It is Important

A disturbing trend in yoga is the eradication of breathing instruction. There are teacher training programs instructing future teachers to not mention breath to their students.  I worked at at studio where the owner said not to talk to students about breath. I have been to workshops where presenters said that we should not teach students how to regulate their breath. Even without reading the Sutras, if yoga is a discipline that teaches us how to calm our mind and we know that humans use breath to stay calm, why wouldn’t we control the breath as we practice?

I have heard people say that the student will learn how to breathe on their own. Some will, some wont. A person who has grunted and groaned their way through physical activities their entire life will most likely keep doing it. Why change something that works? Baring down and holding the breath works at the gym when lifting weights, why not do it during yoga? A high powered business person who runs off of adrenaline and whose breath is constantly sped up ,will do the same in yoga. That is how they get through everything else. Yes. They will take a few deep breaths. It is natural. However, their normal patterns will dominate the practice. Yoga is about becoming aware of patterns and breaking the cycle of living unconsciously.  One of the best ways to do this is through breath. If we can become aware of something as subtle as our breath moving in and out through our nose, we can become aware of the subtle workings of the body and mind that drive our existence. Once we are aware of them, we can control them. Once we control them, we can live life instead of having life live us.

To practice yoga, is to practice breath control. It is one of the 8 limbs of yoga mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Yoga Sutras, breath is discussed 6 times as much as asana.  Without breath control, are you really practicing yoga? Breath control is important because it is the most accessible way to calm the mind. An old person, young person, active person, weak person, busy person can control their breath. As long as you can breathe on your own, you can control your breath. You can control your breath in the car, in a meeting, during sex, at the gym, at church or anywhere. You don’t need a yoga mat or expensive yoga clothes. All you need is the will to listen.

 

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Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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