Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Teach Breathing in Yoga?

A friend wrote to me that she was having anxiety problems, and that her husband is having difficulty sleeping.
"Aren't you both still practicing yoga?" I asked. "The breathing is usually really great for stress and sleep problems."
"Oh, yes, we both still go regularly, but more for the stretching and flexibility and less for the breathing."

Two weeks previously I had attended a yoga class at a community center, and I believe I heard the words "inhale," or "exhale," approximately four times in an hour.

When I tell people about the benefits of yoga and they take a class that doesn't emphasize breathing, I feel like I recommended a great restaurant and they ended up in the fast food place next door. Yoga taught without incorporating breathing is like eating food without nutrition. It may make you feel good but ultimately it doesn't sustain you.

I understand. The benefits of any practice are highly dependent on the teacher. Even the best yoga teachers get caught up in their "process," their class plan, thinking about what they have to do next, and lose track of whether their students are focusing on the breath. And if you weren't trained about the importance of breath, how are you supposed to know?

What I fear is that there are many yoga teachers who have been trained to incorporate breathing, and then when they start teaching, decide that it's not necessary. "Oh, my students won't like that, I'm just teaching in a Y, they'll think it's too new-agey." "Most people come here to become more flexible, they don't come here to learn about breathing." Or maybe they have forgotten how to teach breathing, they can't remember the cues, or need encouragement in how to explain its importance and benefits.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect 18% of American adults in any given year. It's estimated that more than 20% of older American adults take some form of sleep aid (including alcohol).

Max Strom makes a great point in his seminars on breathing: he asks, "Why it is that the healthcare industry encourages pregnant women to take Lamaze – which is basically a breathing class – but they don’t teach breathing to other patients who experience intense pain or anxiety?" If you ever gave birth or supported someone who did, and used Lamaze, you know it works. And you can probably understand why deep breathing exercises are regularly recommended for insomnia.

If you need a refresher on why and how to teach breathing in your yoga classes, the Internet has many resources. I recommend Max Strom's work because he avoids using a lot of new-agey language, but there are many resources. You don't have to talk about nadis or chakra channels to teach breathing, and your students don't have to believe in them to get the benefits.

As a yoga teacher you have the opportunity to provide a great gift by incorporating breathing into every part of your class. Wouldn't you like to help your students get a better rest, or become free of anxiety, without the need for prescription medication? Wouldn't you like to help them be happier, more confident, more relaxed? Try incorporating breathing into your teaching.