“As long as you can take a deep breath in the pose, you’re safe.”
How many times have you heard this phrase from a yoga teacher? You may have even heard it from me…
Deep breathing has always been the fail-safe awareness detector for pose safety. The prevailing myth is that your breath is the best way to gauge whether or not you have traveled too deeply beyond your edge in a pose.
Although paying attention to your breath can give you a lot of information about whether you are straining or stressing your body to get into a pose, it’s not the only dashboard you should be checking. Over my 28+ years of yoga practice and teaching, I have come to the conclusion that deep and powerful breathing is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether you’ve blown past a range.
Proprioception: The body’s sense of itself
What’s so bad about blowing past a range if you can still breathe deeply? Well, your body has many different feedback systems that give you information about position, balance, pain and more. The majority of this information is gained from sensory neurons peppered throughout your connective tissues called proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors.
While these sensory systems are all interconnected to your breath, they are not necessarily going to impact radical change in the cadence or volume of your conscious inhales and exhales. In fact, you may be able to hold yourself in very awkward positions that strain your joints, ligaments, tendons and myofascias in ways that actually sedate the nervous system and cause you to breathe even more deeply and satisfactorily. Sigh.
How deep breathing can mask your sensing
Unfortunately, when you stretch past your end range time and again, you can alter your nervous system’s ability to gain sensory feedback about your joints’ positions. I sure did. Check out this picture of me overstretching my hamstrings. While I was in this pose it felt great – massive breaths filled me for minutes while I held the pose. But what the picture doesn’t show is me limping to the bathroom the next morning with an odd click in my hip and a constantly popping sacroiliac joint.
I had overstretched my body so much, I didn’t feel the cumulative affects of de-stabilizing my joints over decades of a fanatical practice. Once I finally accepted that fact, I had to learn to back off and sense the feedback my joints could communicate about stability. This meant allowing my fascias and connective tissues to “tighten up” in order to heal from being constantly lengthened and held for epic periods of time in poses.
At first, it seemed very un-yogic of me to ditch some of my old practice habits of deep breathing matched with contortion-worthy positions. I was attached to my practice, but it was hurting me. I even took the advice of my friend Gary Kraftsow, founder of Viniyoga, who suggested I stop deep breathing altogether and observe how my breath reacted to my movements rather than me try to over-pattern a stylized breath on top of every move.
Listen to another tune: Proprioception
In order to hear what your tissues are saying when they move, you may need to stop over-focusing on what your breath is saying. I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but to gain a true consciousness of what your specific, uniquely wonderful body needs and is currently capable of (as opposed to attempting to match what someone else’s pose looks like or what you believe yours should look like), you may need to temporarily let go of your breath in order to hone in and learn to listen to other important indicators.
This was a total revelation to me.
Once I dropped the need to make breath the arbiter of control and allowed it to simply be one more way to observe how my body was responding to my practice, I began to innately respond to my body’s true needs.
As I consciously redirected my attention to healing my tissues and joints, I found an infinite number of creative ways to keep my body and mind stimulated. Thus my Yoga Tune Up® program was born. My deep focus now is teaching others how to awaken their proprioceptors so that they can locate tissues and develop a heightened sense of body awareness at all times. Deep breathing is of course a huge part of what I teach, but I also find that I often have to teach students to de-couple their breathing from every move they make.
Breath and movement: Better together?
Many yoga practitioners have become so unconsciously attached to linking breath and movement that they are no longer able to differentiate the two. In order to understand how breath complements movement, and how movement complements breath, you must be able to savor each one separately, as well as together. It’s like being able to taste the peanut butter and the jelly rather than blending them together first and smearing it on toast.
We are often taught that the breath is the be-all end-all of a focused yoga practice. That’s certainly what I believed for years! But while I do agree that breath work is an important part of any yoga practice, I’d like to open up the dialogue to consider additional safety systems, such as proprioceptive awareness. Give these other safety detectors the chance to show you their power.