In YJ's newest course, Restorative Yoga 101, Jillian Pransky, director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks and author of Deep Listening, will have you rethinking rest one deep breath at a time. This four-week program offers students an in-depth look at eight essential poses that will help you elicit the relaxation response, simple prop setups that will help encourage release and healing, guided meditative sequences and breathing exercises, mind-body alignment lectures, and personal inquiry. Eager to learn more? Sign up now.
In most yoga practices, because of the way instruction is put together with movement, we often feel that we "do" the breathing, rather than letting the breath come and go on its own. Since this "trying" actually creates a lot of stress, a far more relaxing alternative is to allow the breath to come and go on its own, says Jillian Pransky, director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks, who leads Yoga Journal's upcoming online course, Restorative Yoga 101: Journey Into Stillness With the Tools and Practice to Heal, Restore, and Rejuvenate.
"As we release deep tension in restorative yoga, we create the conditions for our breath to flow more freely," Pransky explains. "We create space for the breath to come and go on its own, in a free flow, in as deep of a capacity as it can at that moment. This type of natural, free breathing can help initiate the relaxation response. When the breath is free to be its natural depth and length, it helps send messages to the brain that you’re calm and that elicits or furthers the parasympathetic response to rest and digest."
Breathing is not an “activity” we need to accomplish, Pransky reminds us. It is simply a process that we allow to happen. "You don’t actually have to make an effort to breathe," she says. "In fact, you have to take away effort. To inhale, you let the breath come to you. To exhale, you simply get out of its way."
As we practice letting go of effort in restorative yoga, allowing the ground and our props to support us, we begin to experience the natural rise and fall of the breath, Pransky says. "We notice that after an exhale, our lungs spontaneously and organically fill again with air. The breath is simply waiting for more room so that it can fill us."
Discovering that the breath is truly here for us, unconditionally supporting and nourishing us, also helps us relax in deeper ways, she adds. "We may finally realize that we don’t have to be so militant about always trying to control all our efforts to make ourselves OK—inherently, the breath is always taking care of us. This is a huge lesson of restorative yoga."
Learning to embrace "natural" breathing also helps us return to our breath when we're off the mat and out in the world, "so we can confidently pause and listen to our life with the support of our calming, centering, caring breath," Pransky says.
3 of Pransky's Favorite Ways to Practice "Free Flow" Breathing
1. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart before, during, and after Savasana or any supine pose or chest opener—anytime you are lying down on your back. Practice feeling your hand receiving your breath. Rather than focusing on "doing" the breathing, place your attention on feeling the breath coming and going under your hand. As you inhale, feel your belly and chest expand into your hand. Mentally imagine welcoming the breath with your hand.
2. Here is another practice that I like to do in Savasana or a chest opener, when I need a little more help releasing restriction and tuning into the breath: before you settle into stillness, sweep your arms along with the flow of the breath as it’s happening, like a vinyasa movement. Imagine how you sweep your arms up Tadasana. In that same way, feel the inhale come to you, sweep the arms up, pause at the top of your inhale, and wait for the exhale. When you notice the exhale happening on its own, sweep the arms down. Let your arms be an illustration of the pace and length of your breath as you discover that it’s happening. That's really the key thing—discovering the length of your breath as it’s happening, rather than, "Breathe in, arms up, breathe out, arms down."
3. Imagine you could breathe through your skin—feel where your skin meets the air. Rather than focusing on your breath moving through your nostrils, image that your skin is porous, or gill-like, and that your breath flows in and out through your skin, equally everywhere. I love this imagery because it helps you soften more deeply and more effortlessly release restrictions that may inhibit the breath from flowing freely.