Most of us have a tendency to work too hard in yoga at least some of the time in an effort to try to force improvement in our practice. However, over-efforting is counterproductive because it increases the likelihood of injury and thwarts our enjoyment of the present moment, which in turn impedes our ability to practice awareness with serenity. In addition, too much power in our practice makes it difficult to explore the refinements of the poses, to notice and adjust minor alignment imbalances, and to find expressiveness, spaciousness, and freedom in each pose.

So how do you go about striking that balance between power and refinement? The answer is through the breath.

Think of your body as an orchestra, and your breath as the conductor. Each musician—each body part—knows how to play their part, but to create a coordinated, immersive, transformative whole, the individual parts need to be coordinated, synchronized, orchestrated. The breath does this, but it does a whole lot more. Just like a conductor sets the tone of the music, the breath sets the tone of your practice. There are some fundamental rules of good breathing: the breath should always be smooth, steady, and free of strain. But there is also quite a bit of room for individual expression in the breath, and creatively varying the breath is how we can shift the balance between power and refinement in each pose, and at every stage of each pose. We do this by varying both the depth of the breath and its pulsation:

  • If you are feeling your energy levels drop in the middle of a practice, you can generate more energy, more power, by deepening your breath, by breathing more vigorously (for example, by engaging Ujjayi breath). On the other hand, when you are deep in a pose hovering at your edge, you breathe more delicately to temper your power, to gently probe into those hard to access parts of yourself that help you open fully into a pose.
  • Similarly we can vary how we transform the pulsation of our breath into movement to bring a pose alive. Generally, we tend to activate and increase energy flow on inhales, and relax, release, soften, and refine energy on exhales. However, sometimes it can be more effective to reverse this pulsation, or even to engage on both inhales and exhales, or release on both. There are no firm rules here. What matters is that we train our awareness to know what is right in each moment.

To be sure, plenty of yoga poses require raw power to be possible at all, but if we fail to work on refining our poses, if we fail to work on opening ourselves completely to each pose, we are merely working out, not practicing yoga, and we deny ourselves some of the greatest benefits of the practice.

(The principles underlying this week’s theme come from Erich Schiffmann’s excellent book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.)