Asana is a Breathing Exercise

Asana is a Breathing Exercise. I know — it sounds strange! We usually associate asana with yoga posture, and pranayama with breathwork. We compartmentalize the various practices of yoga and label them with specific names such as asanas, pranayama, etc. However, a fresh new perspective often helps us gain a deeper insight into the practice.

I first heard the words “Asana is a Breathing Exercise” from my wonderful yogi friend Ricky Tran, during his presentation in the Texas Yoga Conference in 2011. It immediately caught my attention! Upon contemplating on this idea, I realized how true those words are.

Indeed, it is true that asanas are postures for the body. At the same time, the Yoga Sutras place very little emphasis on physical abilities such as flexibility, strength, etc. The perfection in a yoga pose is not measured by our ability (or lack of thereof) to reach our toes, or to bend backwards 180 degrees, or to twist the spine 360 degrees! Maharishi Patanjali does not give any exacting standards that are measurable that should be attained by the body. What Patanjali does suggest is to use our internal experience to guide the posture to one’s unique expression of perfection. Simply put, a pose where the practitioner is in extreme discomfort is not asana, regardless of how wonderful it appears from the outside or how photogenic is their smile! On the other hand, a posture is perfect if we bring the stability (sthira), ease (sukham) and effortlessness (prayatna shaitilya) in the pose, regardless of the physical prowess.

This is where the breath comes in. The rhythm of one’s breath is a true indicator of ease or struggle. When there is stability, ease and effortlessness in the body, we can easily control the breath to be in harmony. On the other hand, when there is struggle in the pose, the breath flows in a haphazard manner and it is difficult to regulate. In fact, the Sanskrit phrase prayatna shaitilya (prayatna = struggle, shaitilya = let go) that appears in yoga sutra II.47 is also interpreted as the effortlessness of the breath. Quoting Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswamifrom his wonderful book on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras,

By making the breath smooth (and long), and by concentrating or focusing the mind on the breath, the perfection of the posture is obtained (II-47).

Therefore in an asana, the primary emphasis should be on the breath (to make it smooth and effortless); the posture is secondary. It is indeed accurate to say Asana is a Breathing Exercise!