It has been said that the essence of yoga is breath. To the untrained outsider, it is obvious that asana and meditation techniques rely on controlled breathing to focus the body and the mind. The experienced yoga practitioner understands that proper breath control is the essence of yogic mastery. The yoga teacher relies on knowledge of breath that transcends the understanding of even the most advanced student.
In the classroom, proper breathing is one of the instructor’s greatest tools. When students are breathing in harmony, their bodies naturally flow from one asana to the other. Breathing sets the pace of each yoga training lesson. Proper pranayama technique in the classroom is so important that having just one student breathing out of step with the rest of the class can be a major source of disruption.
What Should a Yoga Teacher Know About Pranayama
The job of the student is to mimic. The job of the teacher is to guide the student’s imitations until they reach the proper level of mastery. Naturally, the teacher must have a greater understanding of the subject matter than the student. In order to teach yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), yoga instructors must fully understand these methods.
Pranayama is more than simply inhaling and exhaling. Pranayama is a yogic science whose origin can be traced back thousands of years. In pranayama, each breath consists of many parts. Each of these parts is essential to reaching the full benefit of this science.
When the yoga instructor tells the student to breathe deeply, or to hold a breath for seconds, the instructor should be intimately aware of everything that is to be expected from this particular breath. This includes where the breath originates in the body, where the breath travels, and where the breath ends before leaving the body. Each stage of breathing has a particular quality that can only fully be understood after many repetitions.
Even beginning students can understand that breathing is important in yoga. The knowledge of this complexity can sometimes present a barrier to learning. As students become fixated with the length and quality of each breath, their concentration on other equally important aspects of the lesson weakens. In order to prevent this, the yoga instructor must teach the importance of breathing in a relaxed and conscious way. As the teacher speaks, their breathing presents an active demonstration of just what the student should be doing.
As the student observes the teacher, so to the teacher must observe the student. In order to truly teach pranayama, the teacher must be able to detect the breathing of the student and correct mistakes. This observation is both visual and auditory. Visually, the teacher inspects the posture of the students as they breathe, looking for signs of labored or imperfect breaths. Additionally, the yoga teacher listens to the inhalations and exhalations of the student, encouraging full rich full breaths as opposed to short gasps.
Pranayama is a complex art that appears simple, when properly carried out. It is the lifelong goal of every yoga practitioner to perfect his or her breathing technique. For yoga instructors, pranayama is even more complex. Where the student needs only to master their own breaths, the teacher must oversee the technique of each of their students.