Teaching Breath and Movement

by Sjanie McInnis

You probably don't need me to enumerate the benefits of conscious breathing, but here are just a few:  calm mental state, musculoskeletal benefits, and improved respiratory health.  Then there's the magic of being led in a flow or vinyasa style yoga class where your movements and breath are consciously linked.  If you've ever had that experience you know there is nothing like it, so that's why it is a priority for me in my teaching.

I then have an additional responsibility on top of guiding bodies and energetics:  I have to hook into a process that's automatic, maybe even unconscious for many students.  I can't dominate their breath, I can only cultivate it, so here are some guidelines I use:

1.  If I'm going to link instructions with breath, my instruction can only last as long as the breath itself.  My conscious breath is about 3 or 4 seconds in each direction.  So my instruction can only last 2-4 seconds in each direction.  I'll run into trouble if my instruction is like "Inhale, and sweep your arms overhead, stretching through your fingernails, with your shoulders down your back, and celebrate the intrinsic goodness of your nature, while opening your chest" get the idea.  There has to be an exhalation coming pretty darn soon in that case, or your students will start to gasp and choke.

2.  Because of point 1, I need to know what I'm going to say well in advance of giving the breath cue itself.  Many a well-intentioned cue gets all hashed up because I'm not clear on what I want you to do for each breath pairing.  Example:  "Inhale, and....ummm...take your, uh, arms....sweep your arms overhead, and then exhale to...  Um.  Uh, bow forward and touch the floor".  I endeavor to serve students by being clear in my own mind.  I script my cues in writing from time to time, and record myself saying them; I practice my own recorded classes.

3.  I pick a direction of movement to be correlated with the breath and stick with it throughout the class.  Generally speaking, I instruct the inhalation when I'm moving the body away from the floor, against gravity, and the exhalation when I'm moving the body towards the floor, with gravity.  If you've never tried this before, practice a sun salutation where you exhale to take your arms overhead, or where you inhale to lower your body to the floor.

4.  If I give an inhale cue, I have to give an exhale cue.  It's not gonna end well if I string together a long chain of inhale cues or vice versa.  Example:  "inhale, stretch your arms overhead...fold forward...inhale, flat back look forward, step back to plank pose, inhale, take your right leg up, step your right foot forward, inhale take your arms up..."  As with point 1, the effect in my students is very stressful because there's no chance to release.  A long chain of exhalations isn't much better because the student will have no air in the lungs, and they'll get woozy and disoriented.

Like a dancer's flawless performance, teaching with breath can seem like it is an effortless flow, but the dancer's mastery arises from diligent practice.

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About the Author

Sjanie guides voices and bodies in Vancouver, Canada.  She is primarily interested in using yoga as a way to get friendly humans in rooms together so they can figure out how to end unnecessary suffering and help the environment. Her twins keep this interest very close to her heart.