Yoga Tune Up® Blog


Your Breath Is Not A Safety Detector

“As long as you can take a deep breath in the pose, you’re safe.”

How many times have you heard this phrase from a yoga teacher? You may have even heard it from me…

Deep breathing has always been the fail-safe awareness detector for pose safety. The prevailing myth is that your breath is the best way to gauge whether or not you have traveled too deeply beyond your edge in a pose.

Although paying attention to your breath can give you a lot of information about whether you are straining or stressing your body to get into a pose, it’s not the only dashboard you should be checking. Over my 28+ years of yoga practice and teaching, I have come to the conclusion that deep and powerful breathing is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether you’ve blown past a range.

Proprioception: The body’s sense of itself

What’s so bad about blowing past a range if you can still breathe deeply? Well, your body has many different feedback systems that give you information about position, balance, pain and more. The majority of this information is gained from sensory neurons peppered throughout your connective tissues called proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors.

While these sensory systems are all interconnected to your breath, they are not necessarily going to impact radical change in the cadence or volume of your conscious inhales and exhales. In fact, you may be able to hold yourself in very awkward positions that strain your joints, ligaments, tendons and myofascias in ways that actually sedate the nervous system and cause you to breathe even more deeply and satisfactorily. Sigh.

How deep breathing can mask your sensing

Unfortunately, when you stretch past your end range time and again, you can alter your nervous system’s ability to gain sensory feedback about your joints’ positions. I sure did. Check out this picture of me over stretching my hamstrings. While I was in this pose it felt great – massive breaths filled me for minutes while I held the pose. But what the picture doesn’t show is me limping to the bathroom the next morning with an odd click in my hip and a constantly popping sacroiliac joint.

I had over stretched my body so much, I didn’t feel the cumulative affects of de-stabilizing my joints over decades of a fanatical practice. Once I finally accepted that fact, I had to learn to back off and sense the feedback my joints could communicate about stability. This meant allowing my fascias and connective tissues to “tighten up” in order to heal from being constantly lengthened and held for epic periods of time in poses.

At first, it seemed very un-yogic of me to ditch some of my old practice habits of deep breathing matched with contortion-worthy positions. I was attached to my practice, but it was hurting me. I even took the advice of my friend Gary Kraftsow, founder of Viniyoga, who suggested I stop deep breathing altogether and observe how my breath reacted to my movements rather than me try to over-pattern a stylized breath on top of every move.

Listen to another tune: Proprioception

In order to hear what your tissues are saying when they move, you may need to stop over-focusing on what your breath is saying. I know this may sound counter intuitive, but to gain a true consciousness of what your specific, uniquely wonderful body needs and is currently capable of (as opposed to attempting to match what someone else’s pose looks like or what you believe yours should look like), you may need to temporarily let go of your breath in order to hone in and learn to listen to other important indicators.

This was a total revelation to me.

Once I dropped the need to make breath the arbiter of control and allowed it to simply be one more way to observe how my body was responding to my practice, I began to innately respond to my body’s true needs.

As I consciously redirected my attention to healing my tissues and joints, I found an infinite number of creative ways to keep my body and mind stimulated. Thus my Yoga Tune Up® program was born. My deep focus now is teaching others how to awaken their proprioceptors so that they can locate tissues and develop a heightened sense of body awareness at all times. Deep breathing is of course a huge part of what I teach, but I also find that I often have to teach students to de-couple their breathing from every move they make.

Breath and movement: Better together?

Many yoga practitioners have become so unconsciously attached to linking breath and movement that they are no longer able to differentiate the two. In order to understand how breath complements movement, and how movement complements breath, you must be able to savor each one separately, as well as together. It’s like being able to taste the peanut butter and the jelly rather than blending them together first and smearing it on toast.

We are often taught that the breath is the be-all end-all of a focused yoga practice. That’s certainly what I believed for years! But while I do agree that breath work is an important part of any yoga practice, I’d like to open up the dialogue to consider additional safety systems, such as proprioceptive awareness. Give these other safety detectors the chance to show you their power.

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About This Author

Jill is the creator of Yoga Tune Up®. Having studied Yoga, Dance, and Body Movement for more than 24 years she created the Yoga Tune Up® format to help people find and heal trouble areas before debilitating breakdowns occur. Jill teaches workshops and retreats internationally, is a longtime faculty member of the Omega Institute, and has traveled nationally choreographing programs for Discovery Health Channel. The L.A. Times calls her "kinetically arresting”. For more info on Jill go here.

27 Responses to “Your Breath Is Not A Safety Detector”

  1. Ayla Barker says:

    Great article! This relates to lifting weights as well. If you are lifting your maximal load it is important to actually hold your breath to create stabilization of the spine, especially during dead lifts, or you risk herniating a disk. Coming from a ballet background, where the more you bend the better, its important to understand that hyper-mobility should not be the goal or purpose for the practice, living pain free is the purpose!

  2. Sophie D says:

    I often witness my focus in class going to other people’s exaggerated Ujayii breath wondering if I had to find a greater expression of my own, distracting me from my practice. After reading that the Ujayii breath “should be as soft and internal as possible so that it is only heard by you” from your book Catch Your Breath, I finally have the language to guide my future students to release their breath a little to allow the space to focus on the other indicators described here, a fantastic tool, thank you!

  3. Nancy says:

    This makes so much sense, not just the use of breath masking or providing an escape from pain, but latching on to any one thing thing as an imutable principle. As an eager searcher for “THE answer” I can easily fall prey to dogma, and it has never served me as either student or teacher. There is no way to get around the complexity of being a human being in a body, and that requires attention, discrimination and no comfortable panaceas. I appreciate the spirit of exploration and discovery in the YTU system, and think it is indeed spiritual in the best possible way.

  4. Kristin says:

    What you present have to grapple with. I have a habit of holding and losing my breath. Which creates tension. I have trouble with my breath and allowing the intercostals to expand. So for me I need the breath to not hold myself in one place. What I get from your article is that you really are saying don’t attach yourself to an idea of perfection as it can take you off course. You can not hold onto ideal because it might not serve you in the way that you need. It is ego and selfishness in a way, verse giving up that ideal to be able to hear your body again.

  5. Clare Chura says:

    This article is extremely valuable to my practice, Jill. I’ve been practicing vinyasa yoga for years, and as a current Yoga Tune Up trainee (just completed day three), I’ve noticed how attached my breath is to my poses. I don’t believe this to be wrong or harmful; my breath allows me to hold and deepen within each posture. However, I do notice how other parts of my body communicate while I’m holding a pose, and they aren’t pretty messages. For example, I can gradually abduct my hip and extend my knee by my head to hold a full version of compass pose, but it can leave a burning sensation in my coxal joint. This training is deepening my understanding of modifications and is also helping me establish a concrete, scientific background that I look forward to incorporating into the classes that I will eventually teach.

  6. Jessie says:

    What a great article! The concept of letting go of certain poses that no longer suite you, and releasing the need to control (breath, depth, etc.) in poses, is one that is so obvious. The issue is that it is also so foreign to the over-achieving yogi. I can recall a particular class where I just had to achieve compass pose. Yay for me… I did, but at the expense of a torn hamstring attachment, whose affects I had to recover from for months!

  7. Cindy says:

    Wow! I really enjoyed this article. You have truly embodied the idea of doing what’s best for your body and range of motion, rather than what you think a pose should look like (usually by comparing yourself to others in the pose). I personally believe in linking breath to movement but I also agree with your stance that there are other important factors to consider as well, such as what your joints and muscles are telling you. I especially relate to how you said something felt great at the time, such as your deep forward bending, but then later your body was hurting from it. I have this same issue with back bending. I am quite flexible in my back and teachers often adjust and encourage me to go further, yet I have a sensitive lower back and often feel pain for days after a particularly back-focused yoga class. I have had to learn to listen to my body and let teachers know of my injuries – also an important factor.

  8. kim haegele says:

    Big appreciation for the comments from mado and monica ~

  9. Laurie Streff Kostman says:

    As mentioned above, using the breath as another form of observation, rather than a dictator of movement or range seems to be common sense, yet instead it is often used as “the” indicator of what we can or should be doing. “Oh, I can still take a breath here? That means I must be able to push deeper…” and so on. This reminds me of a similar technique elite athletes use as they use their breath to overcome mental challenges, pain, and the brain signalling them to literally STOP. “Okay, if I just breathe I’ll push past my body’s “weakness” and carry on.” In those instances they also ‘blow past’ their ranges and often create circumstances where injury occurs. This is a valuable subject for everyone who has used breath for that “push.”

  10. monica says:

    love this blog. yogi’s are taught and train themselves to breath through the pain and i am a master at this.

  11. Mado says:

    And, this also points out that the cues that are effective for people who are new to yoga are not necessarily the same cues that will be helpful and sustainable over the long term. One of my goals as a yoga teacher is to help people recognize their habitual tendencies and learn to compensate for them. I think this is what you refer to as body blind spots, though I see them as extending beyond the body – I guess that could be called our brain blind spots. So once a spot is no longer blind, we no longer need the same cues to compensate.

  12. Mado says:

    I see this from two perspectives:
    1. In general, deep breathing helps us cope with pain. So, for example when my 10 year old daughter is trying to not cry, I coach her to breathe deeply.
    2. As hatha yogis, we are trained to continue breathing deeply beyond the places where our breath would normally become ragged or shallow. It seems a natural extension of the above principle and it is true that when the ragged shallow breath happens it is a cue to pay attention. BUT if we have already trained ourselves to breathe deeply through intensity, then that cue becomes less effective.

    So I love the reminder that breath is only one way of noticing whether or not we are pushing beyond our healthy limits – and not THE way. Thanks for bringing a breath of fresh air to this yoga dogma. ;-)

  13. kim haegele says:

    How perfect that I read this post immediately after reading and commenting on one about the beauty and power of linking movement to breath. Jill’s post reminds me of how, in Mysore with KPJ, I taught myself to breathe deeply and fully (through tremendous pain), in spite of being severely injured by my teacher. Inside, I was writhing in agony, but to someone observing I probably looked calm and collected. My fakery was rewarded with comments like “Good lady, free breathing you do.”. At that time I was torn: one part of me tried to buy into the myth that everything was okay if I could breathe in a certain way, while another part knew that continuing to do an extreme practice, even with smooth deep breaths, was causing greater and greater harm. Unfortunately, I gave more respect to the teacher’s opinion and peer pressure than I did to my own “still small voice” and ended up with permanent structural damage and chronic pain. So, in addition to inspiring me to think more carefully about how I teach the breath, this post reminds me of how important it is to teach students to pay careful attention to sensation, to not assume that the teacher knows more about what’s good for them than they do, and to make self-care a priority in yoga practice.

  14. Bianca Albrecht says:

    One of my teachers told me the best story to think about the importance of deep breathing. If we look at the wild cat cheeta which is the fastest animal in the world, we realize that the strenght is not only about muscles. The cheeta has large lunges and a big heart. Both’re working together to fill the body with fresh oxygen. We could life without food for weeks and without water for days, but we will die without oxygen in minutes. This was a very good point to show me the importance of deep breathing.

  15. Dawnn says:

    When things start to get interesting in Vinyasa class, I find myself breathing deeper trying to bare what’s happening with my body. This is a great reminder when listening to your body goes beyond the breathing, and really paying attention to what you are feeling and knowing when you’ve pushed too far. Breath is the life force, so of course we need to keep breathing, but it is equally as important to know your limits and take it easy when you need to.

  16. Pat Donaher says:

    It’s such an interesting paradox- most people come to yoga with very little breath awareness at all, so to get them to link breath to movement at all can be a huge revelation. (and as a teacher, a relatively easy one to impart) But putting the breath or breath synchronization (hello vinyasa- and I’m as guilty as any teacher) is no guarantee of safety or efficiency. This is a great reminder that the breath is one piece of a larger puzzle, and can’t substitute for whole body awareness. Something I need to remind my students (and myself) of regularly.

  17. Ronald Todorowski says:

    I’ve never heard this before, but it absolutely makes sense. There have definitely been times after my practice where I’ve felt over stretched indeed. I’m sure it was because I was more focused on my deep breathing rather than what my body was actually doing. I will start to explore this awareness.

  18. Joanne Smith says:

    This piece has really spoken to me… In pilates, there is such a focus on breath and I have had many instructors over the years teach varying views on when and how to incorporate breath during specific exercises. But, I have felt that it can take away from the essence of the exercise if breath overused. I have seen and felt that this overuse can cause unnecessary tension in the body and detract from the intent of the work. These are topics that I will be exploring further for myself with the new knowledge that I am gaining from your program.

    I am new to Yoga Tune Up and I am so inspired by it! I am so excited to gain insights on and explore topics from your talented team. I am looking forward using this new knowledge to improve my personal practice and to enhance my teaching. Thank you!

  19. elizabethW says:

    In the Iyengar tradition, pranayama is an advanced practice done in a separate session from the asana practice and savasana is taken just as it would be in a more “physical” practice. I think it’s worthwhile to explore this paradigm on a grander scale. As a yoga population we need to get your gross anatomy straightened out, figure out how we move, and where our blind spots are and THEN layer in this very powerful tool. All the while remembering that these breathing techniques are a tool and NOT a rule.

  20. Sophie says:

    In some ways this seems like common sense, but it really brings this simple but important concept home. I also find “controlling” the breath helps one tune in to the body and “use many of the other tools” required be it when doing a static yoga pose, or dynamic high impact movements.

  21. Cat says:

    The breath has always been a strong gauge for my practice, cuing me to back out of a pose and allowing my ego to be checked at the door during my practice. With my recent YTU training, the proprioception piece was one of the greatest insights, how is my body reacting to a pose or how is it feeling before I even start? Taking the time to understand and feel each muscle, understanding my body, how it behaves etc…..It’s a constant work in progress. I will dedicate more attention to releasing my big belly breathe to check in with how my body is feeling and telling me so that I am treating it with the kindness and respect that it deserves, to truly continue to strengthen and heal it as intended.

    This will allow to bring true sthira and sukha to my practice. Thanks for sharing this valuable insight!

  22. Yasmen Mehta says:

    Thanks Jill, this is a really insightful piece. This also tangentially brought up another issue of instability. Typically I try and do all my Yoga Tune Up ball work and Kelly’s mobility just before I go to bed. I tried doing it before a work out and it de stabilizes me a bit in the joints.

  23. Marion says:

    Before I became more forgiving on my body, all poses were to the fullest extreme of flexibility until the insertion to of my hamstrings started to hurt then the elbows went on strike. I finally humbled myself and backed out of pretzel nation. Breath & body is also added with mind. I came to learn that movement should come with a lot of intelligence. Learning to back off should not just be a practice that exists on the mat but should also exist in personal life.

  24. Rachel says:

    I find this so fascinating because I had never really thought about how my breathing has contributed to a pose. I use to hold my breath when working hard, so when I began practicing yoga breathing was the challenge. Then I found a love for deep breathing and “linking breath and movement” but like yourself, I often and easily overstretch without realizing it (until later on). I also really have to comment on the fact I love your analogy of movement and breath being like putting peanut butter (mhmm) and jelly, its makes so much sense!

  25. Steeve says:

    As an athlete, my biggest fear was to hit a plateau. So of course, I would consistently look to “blow past” my range in just about anything associated to my sport, every chance I got.

    After discovering Yoga Tune-Up, as well as other meditative practices, I’ve come to realization that my former approach to physical training and acceptance of the “bigger-faster-better” or “no pain, no gain” philosophies were actually hurting my ability to perform, and ultimately hurting me. I had bought into the idea that painful workouts were good workouts. (See “Selling Freezers to Eskimos” for further references)

    To make a long story short, YTU is a wonderful tool that has allowed me to re-establish a healthier relationship with my body and create an ongoing dialogue with what is happening within the walls of my skin. Learning the impact of what my breath has on my entire system, learning about proprioception and how to develop its acuity, so-on-and-so-forth… Has been revolutionary for me.

    As for the dreaded plateau… I started YTU a year ago in August 2012. I care very little about plateaus now.

    Thanks Jill for sharing.

  26. Lisa Harris says:

    This is definitely something to chew on and contemplate in my practice. Linking movement with breath is a major part of my teaching, but I see your point about blowing past a range if you are not feeling proprioception in the pose, but are simply going for the glory or the final appearance. I love hearing how someone who may have been looked upon with admiration for the depth of poses and tricks has apprehension about doing this to their body (based on experience of how you felt afterwards). As I approach 50 and no longer feel as capable of some of the “glory poses”, I am quite happy to use yoga for staying well, rather than seeing whether or not I can get into the challenging poses.

  27. Aranzasu says:

    Interesting! I was just thinking about how much I loved doing standing diaphragm based backbend and how I take short breaths when I go deeper into this pose and others or when something gets challenging. At a certain point when my breaths get shorter, I like to slowly get out of the pose (especially in back bends because my back has become pretty flexible through years of dance and yoga) so I’m not over stretching. Thanks for reinforcing what my body was feeling and what my mind was wondering.

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Jill Miller, Creator of Yoga Tune Up®

After studying yoga, movement, and the human body for over twenty years, I created Yoga Tune Up® as a simple way to restore my body and mind, keeping me balanced and free of pain. Using a specific and unique set of poses, movements and self massage tools, you too can LIVE BETTER IN YOUR BODY WITH YOGA TUNE UP®.

 

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