When beginning a yoga practice, it’s natural to aim for results: perfect posture, peace of mind, daily discipline—because this is what we are often promised. But after practicing yoga for a while, you start to realize that goals are elusive. When you finally achieve these goals, you see that awareness of the process itself, rather than the result, is the most important thing.
You may achieve a posture and lose it due to injury. Or maybe a loved one dies and your peace of mind get shattered. Here's the thing: Goals are impermanent and elusive. What you thought would be a prize is not a prize at all but just a new vantage point. Here's what every advanced yoga practitioner knows: The path is the goal.
As your practice evolves, you will notice that goals that were brought to your attention through yoga might be replaced by new motivations as you deepen your awareness As Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the path is the goal. So, if there is no external goal, what should yogis be focusing on?
Focus on your breath.
The one thing advanced yoga practitioners know is that the breath is the most powerful tool to access awareness. The breath is the most convenient tool for getting into the present moment, and it is always with us—it is a direct mirror of your state of mind. Steady your breath, and you will automatically steady your mind.
In order to steady the breath, you need to align your posture, which is the benefit of yoga asana. When you start aligning the posture, the subtle channels (nadis) start to clear, allowing the inner winds (prana) to flow without obstruction. Once the prana is flowing, the mind naturally settles.
When you stop to observe the breath, another part of the brain engages, letting you drop your conceptual mind and enter into another, subtler state of awareness. "Getting into your body" is just another way of focusing on the breath. The real goal, if there is one, is to stay present as life goes on around you. The way to do that is to observe the breath.
The art of breathing is a practice in itself. Nowhere else is such untapped power to be found within our reach, literally right under your nose. This is where to begin and is also the foundation for the subtlest and most advanced practices.
The formal technique of breathing practice is called pranayama. Prana is sometimes translated as "life force." Prana rides the breath, and since it is otherwise impossible to measure prana, the breath is the only manifest indicator we have to observe the flow of prana. Pranayama practice consists of different ways of manipulating or "stretching" (ayama) the breath in order to move the prana.
When we have blockages in our system due to injury, illness, or years of patterned behavior, prana can stagnate and in essence, boycott certain areas of the body and mind. Working with the breath in a pranayama practice can dissolve these obstacles and create clear pathways in the subtle energy channels of the body. Then the life force can flow freely, unobstructed. The results are sometimes intangible but clearly noticeable. When someone radiates good health, prana is thriving.
The simplest way to begin is to lie on the floor with the feet up by the hips, knees toward the ceiling. Separate the feet. Alternatively, lie down with your legs up the wall. Place the fingers on the low belly, about 4 inches below the navel. Notice the movement of the belly, or the lack of it as you breathe. Spend a few minutes just watching the relationship between the movement of the belly and the breath.
Relax the muscles of the face; relax the jaw and tongue. Gradually slow down and deepen the breath so that the belly rises and falls with each inhale and exhale, respectively. Spend a few moments just observing the breath without trying to do anything particular with it. Just watch.
Breath and mind are intimately linked. The quality of breath gives you clues about your state of mind. Learn to read the breath so that you can maintain harmony in the mind and body. Breath generally avoids tight spots; so try extending an invitation to the breath to help soften those areas.
Let the lungs expand against the rib cage on the inhale. As you exhale, try to keep the rib cage expanding. Keep the seed or physical memory of the inhale as you exhale, and vice versa. When we inhale, the tendency is to float up and lose your ground. So during inhale, make an effort to stay grounded, keeping in contact with the pelvic floor and engaging the muscles of the very low belly. As you exhale, the tendency is to collapse the heart and give in to gravity.
Keep lightness in the exhale, and ground in the inhale. At any point on the spectrum, we maintain the awareness of the opposing force. This is how it can change your life: by helping you become aware of where you are out of balance.