2 Yogic Breath Practices Inspired By Animals

2 Yogic Breath Practices Inspired By Animals

An Excerpt From Wild Asana


Explore one yoga instructor and anthropologist’s suggestions for breath practices that connect us with animal wisdom.

Practice #1: Fish Wisdom—Breath Retention

You don’t need to breathe like a fish or keep an aquarium to connect with a fish. Become a fish. Baptize yourself into nature. Visit a pond, a puddle, a spring, a river, an ocean. Acknowledge the fishes and other beyond-human beings who live there. You don’t need anyone’s blessing. The water falling from the sky and rushing down the hillside is already holy.

Get yourself in some water, the element that connects us to the fishes, the one thing we all need to survive and thrive. A bathtub, a pool, a bucket, or a bowl will do. Dip your hand in the water. If it is safe to do so, submerge ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. Hear like a fish and listen to sounds moving through the water. See underwater sights. Taste underwater flavors. Notice the water on your skin. What does it feel like? If the water is potable, take a sip and feel the liquid traveling down your esophagus. Open your heart and immerse yourself into knowing.

Hold your breath. The concept of breath retention in pranayama is called kumbhaka. It is a relatively advanced practice, best learned from an experienced teacher. Still, we’ve all held our breath for one reason or another—in fear or in awe, to become especially still or silent. The idea of conscious breath retention is meant to temporarily still the fluctuations of the mind.

For advanced practitioners, breathing does not cease during kumbhaka; it continues in a more subtle way, like the difference between the ways that humans and fishes breathe oxygen. Pranayama teacher Richard Rosen suggests that when we practice breath retention, “We become more like our authentic self, still and serene, self-contained, joyful.”

To experiment with breath retention after the inhale (antar-kumbhaka), sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Inhale for six counts. (Note: A count does not equal a second. You choose the pace of your breath.) Exhale for six counts. Repeat until the pace of your breathing feels right. Then, at the end of an inhale, hold the breath for three counts. Don’t tense up your body or grasp at your held breath. Simply pause. Exhale, and practice a few more rounds, taking three normal six-count breaths in between each retention.

It may help to consider how antar-kumbhaka allows you to savor the prana, to take advantage of the benefits of the air and energy in your lungs. Be especially mindful of this practice’s effect on your state of mind. Take a brief break from breath, knowing that you will inhale again as soon as you need it. See if the practice calms and invigorates you. If it doesn’t, stop and return to your natural breathing.

Practice #2: Cat and Cow Wisdom—Breath Exchange

Come down onto your hands and knees and place a folded blanket under your knees for cushioning. If you prefer, you can do this same exercise seated on the edge of a chair, away from the chair back to give your spine and torso plenty of space to move and explore. From either position, make sure your spine is long and neutral, and spend a minute focused on your breath. You don’t have to change your natural breathing in any way. If you start to think about something else, notice it, and return your attention to your breath.

Let your body start to move with your breath. Better yet, let your breath move your body in intuitive ways. How does your body respond when you inhale versus when you exhale? How does the spine move as the air flows in and out of your body? If it feels comfortable, let the movements become more exaggerated as you warm up. With each inhale, open your heart (physically and metaphorically) and consider that a cow has breathed the very same breath as you—those same molecules of air—yesterday or last century. “This breath, right now, so ancient, yet so fresh,” wrote Micah Mortali.

With each exhale, arch your back and consider that a cat will eventually breathe that very same breath—those same molecules of air—tomorrow or next century. The breath is so linked to our movements in a cat–cow flow. It is the tool that brings us from predator to prey and back again. “To be inspired is to be breathed upon,” wrote Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Forget inspired; be instead, as she suggests, inspirable.

Instead of only flexing and arching the spine, experiment with side stretches and subtle twists. If you experience wrist pain at any time, take a break from the pose. Play in this space of movement-meets-breath for a minute or so, then sit comfortably and breathe in stillness for another minute or more.

From Wild Asana by Alison Zak, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Alison Zak. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

2 Yogic Breath Practices Inspired By Animals

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