The breath is an exceptionally powerful tool in Yin Yoga: as bridge, anchor, director and barometer.
We breathe approximately 23,000 times a day but how many breaths do we take with conscious awareness? We can bring our conscious awareness to the breath to bring our minds and bodies back together. In neuroscience, mindful breathing has been shown to utilise different areas of the brain to when we breathe automatically and unconsciously. In cultivating mindful awareness of the breath in yin, it strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, enhances executive functioning, quells the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain) and better places us to not be driven blindly by emotionality and the more instinctual lower brain centres.
We can anchor our awareness on to our breathing particularly if we are struggling to stay in the postural experience we are in. We can direct our breath into the belly further stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and the corresponding relaxation response.
We can breathe into areas of discomfort or into certain organs or chakras, actively and deliberately affecting the pranic flow within our bodies.
We can also use this life-giving resource to let us know how skilfully we are practicing in each moment. We become familiar with our natural breath rhythm allowing it to remain soft and gentle. When our breath trails off it may indicate we have not moved into the pose deeply enough and may highlight our tendency to hold ourselves back. In this way we learn to work with ourselves to observe and regulate the appropriate depth of sensation that we can tolerate in a given time. Other times we may notice our breath becomes more forceful, more strained. In this instance the breath may illustrate we have gone into the posture with too much intensity too soon, or perhaps a stressful thought, belief or memory has arisen. If we were a little over ambitious in the asana initially, it is certainly appropriate to lessen the intensity of the pose. When we first suggest the shape to the body it exhibits resistance. After 30-60s the body and the muscles begin to relax and greater depth may be possible but not necessarily. Prematurely entering into the posture with too much intensity can greater further energetic imbalances. So, the breath body can highlight any tendencies to aggressively push ourselves succumbing to the over-striving demands of the ego, the anti-thesis of yoga. We become aware and adjust accordingly.
Just like the body, the breath is ever present, ever accessible in every moment, just waiting for us to come home to it. Working with the breath in this way can be incredibly affirming and empowering. It can enable us to directly experience the fact that we each contain the inner resources we need to be able to sit with whatever arises with grace, dignity and the light of awareness, even if it just for this breath, this moment, this posture. And with practice, this capacity grows and extends on and off the mat.