First you breathe in

It started with Guy Martin in Russia, or at least a programme about Guy Martin in Russia. Rather than being suspicious of Russian people Guy got on really well with them, which got me thinking. Specifically about Systema, a Russian martial art I’d read about years ago.

After a spot of googling I came across the website of a guy called Matt Hill, a Systema instructor based in Wiltshire. I watched a few of his videos and they totally flipped my idea of what a martial art is and what Systema is all about. A lot of Matt’s videos focus on breath. It made me think about yoga from a different angle.

So, it actually starts with Sukhasana. Just about every yoga class I go to or teach starts with sitting cross-legged. This is usually followed by instruction to “sit up straight” and “pull your shoulders back”…

But, I thought, what if I just try to create the pose from the breath? After repeatedly starting my practice like this I find that it really helps me to bring my focus to my practice straight away. And it’s a focus and awareness that remains throughout. I start by sitting cross-legged but without any conscious effort to do anything regarding posture. Instead, I start yogic breathing, deep down into my abdomen and allow my ribcage and chest to fill with air. This action naturally extends the spine and lifts the chest. A few repetitions asserts the extension and then I focus on using the exhalation to relax my shoulders, neck, groin, hips, knees… As my next extends and my chin comes towards my chest I feel a good connection to and awareness of my breath.

I try to maintain this throughout my practice to see what it brings. It’s certainly brought new insights into Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). And it’s brought a new appreciation for Balasana (Child pose) and Adho Mukha Virasana (Face-down Hero pose).

In Balasana I focus on breathing into my back and minimise any expansion of my chest, which I monitor through the pressure between my chest and thighs. Likewise, in Adho Mukha Virasana I focus on expanding my ribs sideways using the pressure between my ribcage and inner thighs as a guide. I also like to come up onto fingertips of my hands as they extend forward as it helps my thoracic spine to extend.

The ability to controlling my breathing and direct into different areas of my body has done wonders for the development of other poses. By breathing into my back ribs I have found a much improved ability to go deep into forward bends. It also helps with twists like Parivrtta Parsvakonasana where breathing into the front body becomes very compromised and spending anytime in the pose very difficult without being able to use the back to breathe.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring Sun Salutations through breathing, any insights from which I’ll be happy to share.

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