Originally Posted Sept. 25, 2013
Updated February 19-28, 2023
The “Theme of the Year, or however long it takes,” as I called it back in 2013, has come back in classes. This theme—it’s a project or process, really—is “Finding the ‘Optimal’ Place in the Pose.”
Stating it this way assumes that there actually is such thing as an “optimal” place. I understand that an argument can be made that there’s no such thing. From a certain perspective, where you are in the pose—or life—at any given point is “optimal” since that is what is happening in the moment. However, all of us have enough experience with on-the-mat practice—and life!—to know that we don’t feel like we are in an “optimal” place in every moment of every pose, and so from that perspective, we’re not. On the mat, some things we do have the capacity to change purposely so that the pose feels more optimal; this is what we are working with here.
If there is an “optimal” place in any given pose, it will, of necessity, be subjective and dependent on one’s unique body/mind at a specific moment (now!). It will also be constantly changing. Given those personal and time-bound parameters, I still say that, yes, there is such thing. Since any “optimal” place will vary from body to body, from moment to moment, there is nothing we can say about what it will look like from the outside in advance in any given pose. Though we can’t say what it will look like from the outside, there are definitely ways to tell from the inside.
One implication of this inherent “unpredictability” of what the “optimal” place will look like from the outside is that the will—and thus, the ego—will not be able to find it. That turns out to be very important since this fact is what makes the process Yoga (a practice and process that ultimately has us realize our True Nature) and not just another exercise. Our usual mode of doing—of thinking of ourselves (=the ego) as the doer—will not succeed in this process since it involves finding the optimal place and not making the optimal place or doing the optimal pose.
In beginning to search for some possible “optimal” place in any pose, we can start by looking at the breath. First of all, can you breathe, or are you breathing? If you can’t—or aren’t—breathing, would you consider that “optimal?” That’s not a rhetorical question; really, would you consider it “optimal?” You’ve been in a yoga pose and noticed that you weren’t breathing—maybe even right now reading this. That’s not ideal is it? In that moment, it doesn’t feel even close to good, not to mention optimal, does it?
In my view, not breathing makes it certain that we are not in an optimal place…yet, purely by definition. Not breathing in the pose means that some part is locked down and resistant to what is, which is good for self-torture possibly, but not optimal yoga.
The bottom-line on this then is that if we’re not breathing, all we know is that it’s not the optimal place. If we are breathing, it could be the optimal place, but the lone fact of breathing occurring is insufficient to know for sure.
Reading that statement, a person might get a little confused and think they just need to make the body breathe during asana practice. The question, however, is not, “Can you make yourself breathe or force your body to breathe?” but, “Can the breath be relatively smooth, relatively deep, and steady and comfortable without an undue amount of effort within the parameters of the pose, and generally in and out through the nose?” If not, then as a yoga practitioner, it’s easy for us to recognize that it’s not the optimal place. We all can, most of the time, force ourself to breathe, sometimes even deeply, if need be. Though that “practice” will lead to a particular result, it’s not necessarily a yogic result, but it’s probably a better result than not breathing.
If we are to use the breath to find any kind of “optimal” place in any pose, ultimately we have to pay attention not only to the fact of the breathing happening—which is important—but also, more importantly, to the quality of the breathing. This requires a subtler awareness, and may be easily overlooked. Some qualities of breath will indicate that the pose is not optimal, and if we focus more intently, we’ll notice that some other qualities indicate being in a better place in the pose, possibly even to the point of finding the “optimal.” As with any exploration, we start with the gross, obvious, and easy and move toward the more subtle and vague.
In this exploration of breath quality, please take as a given that changing the physical position of the body in any pose will affect the quality of the breathing, sometimes toward the “better” and sometimes toward the “worse.” We will experience it subjectively in the moment. Take this statement as a given even if you haven’t yet experienced it directly in your own bodymind, and you may not have yet. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you can go a little (non-hurtful) bit too far in a pose and notice the quality of the breath; then change nothing but back up to what you know is a better place in the pose and notice that the quality of the breath changed without you doing anything but changing the physical positioning.
Before we notice any breath quality indicating “optimal-ness,” we’ll more easily detect “non-optimal” qualities. Several people have volunteered qualities that they noticed are not indicative of the body being in a happy position. First and most popular is not breathing—or holding—the breath, but I take that as not so much a quality of breath since the it isn’t even happening (see above). Following that first observation, people have stated jagged, stuttery, shallow, forced, uneasy. If the breath exhibits any of those qualities, we can easily and logically surmise that those states of breath reflect the state of our mind at that point, as well. Since breathing in those ways is so uncomfortable and not-good-feeling, the breathing—and the mind—will clearly tell us that that position is not the optimal place in the pose.
Finding qualities of breath that indicate a more optimal positioning is probably also relatively easy for most practitioners to notice. For example, if you notice the breathing is more “tense, jagged or forced,” for example, you can back off the pose a bit, so that the breath naturally shifts to feeling more “relaxed.” With that change, you’ll immediately feel better in the pose and happier about continuing to explore it. So “relaxed” or “calm” breathing might be qualities that will indicate for us better positioning.
For myself, the quality of breath that I look for, I call clear. It has nothing to do with the sinuses or anything like that, but it feels like a whole body clear-ness and the pathway for the breath is clear. I don’t know that that will actually be helpful to anyone, but that’s the best “name” I currently have for it. Take it as potentially another breath quality that may indicate better positioning than “shallow and forced,” for example.
One challenge that we will run into when we start noticing the quality of the breath is that sometimes the physical position of the body in the pose will limit, constrict, restrict, or hold back the breath. There’s a difference in feeling between muscular activity—or the physical positioning—constricting the breathing and mental/emotional tension holding it back, and we need to be able to make that distinction. Being able to recognize that difference makes a big difference in our yoga practice and our experience on the mat. Try looking for that next time you do your asana practice. I still look for what I call clear breathing even in poses where the physical positioning severely restricts and limits the breathing.
In this regard, one woman asked specifically about how in some poses she was trying to breathe to her belly but also noticed that the belly needed to be muscularly active to support the body in the position. She was wondering how to breathe in the belly and use those muscles for support. The answer is “Don’t try to breathe there.” In this—and many—poses, we’ll keep the belly muscles active to support and stabilize the lower spine, and then we just breathe as low in the body as possible. The breath will feel—and will be—restricted and not very deep; and that’s OK in this case. And/but be aware of how that muscle-activity feels restricting the breath vs. if you were just mentally or emotionally tense and gripping in the belly because, again, making that distinction is key for this exploration and for deepening our Yoga.
The breathing in the poses will not always be easy, eg. think about locust/shalabasana which allows only the shallowest, most-constricted breathing. But with attention, we can notice and distinguish between the reasons the breathing might be restricted in the pose.
Having written all that, ultimately, though, we can’t really be aware of the quality of “the breath;” all we can be aware of is the quality of this inhalation (or exhalation) in this moment. In the next moment—on the same inhalation—it may be different; it is constantly changing. I think this fact is what makes being aware of the quality of the breath so difficult and also makes it Yoga: it demands that we be minutely present and focused in the Now. Any spacing out will make this awareness impossible, in which case it’s just better simply to keep breathing and not even think about the quality…yet.
To summarize about the breathing: While doing yoga asanas,
- Breath, in and out through the nose if at all possible. Keep breathing.
- Try not to force it.
- If you can, notice the quality of the breathing, and if it seems sub-optimal, change the positioning (usually do less) and see if the quality of the breath—and of yourself—becomes more positive-feeling.