yogacitynyc | October, 2011

What, Why, How

According to medical studies, most people are only using 20-40% of their lung capacity and about 90% have restricted breathing patterns. Yet, for thousands of years, the yogis knew that breath was the way to flow with our nervous system and there was a direct relationship between the physiological, the psychological and energetic. Breath is the soul of yoga practice and yet it is often overlooked in classes. Yogacity NYC’s Carly Sachs sat down with some of New York’s most experienced teachers to find out more about this critically important practice. (Their bios can be found at the end of the story.)

Define breath for Us.

Julie Wilcox, Co-founder of ISHTA Yoga: Breath is Prana, our life force, which travels through our energetic channels (nadis) and activates every cell of our being. Pranayama is how we can manipulate our breath to influence its movement through our systems.

J. Brown, founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center: The act of existing.

Elizabeth Rossa, founder of Shriyoga: The breath is the process of inspiration and expiration which guides our attention to move towards life. Breathing balances both the pranic and apanic energies which dynamically uplift and ground the body-mind.

Leslie Kaminoff, founder of The Breathing Project: The simplest and most useful definition is a mechanical one. We have two cavities in the body, the thoracic and the abdominal. Breathing really is nothing more or less than the shape change of those cavities. That definition also includes the spine and spinal movements.

What in your life has shifted through your pranayama practice? Or what are you more aware of because of the breath?

JW: Everything. I am always tapped into my state of being from the knowledge of how my breath is moving. I catch myself for instance, at times of upset, anxiety or stress when I am not breathing at all! Then, I know to engage a technique that pertains to the cause of that breath state and I can dissolve it, thereby changing the way I feel or in other words, my mood. Because pranayama purifies the mind, it brings me clarity about who I am and how I feel at any given moment in time.

JB: Experiencing and gaining facility with my own breath has translated into a greater sense of poise in my thoughts and behaviors. Also, the engagement of my breath is a way of actively participating in the fact of my life. In so doing, I am aware of life in a broader sense and feel my place in the universe is inherent.

ER: The rhythm of my life and how I move through the obstacle courses that life can offer has radically shifted. Erich Schiffman, another magnificent teacher from my early days of training brought it home for me with his famous “Pause, BREATHE, Feel…. and then DARE to do what the feeling tells you to do….” It was December of 2002 when I was in his teacher training program, and it came like a bolt of lightening. Ahhhh….. yes. Pause, BREATHE. I had been running around in a rush to get somewhere, not realizing I was already here. Pranayama practice is what keeps me present. Any injuries or accidents I have sustained since Erich’s teaching in 2002 have been directly linked to my forgetting to pause and breathe. In addition, I have found that my choices are more “in sync” with a larger vision when I am actively pausing and breathing before I actively make choices. Again, when I forget, or fall unconscious, my habit is to impulsively make decisions without “checking in”…. which is the “feeling” or sensing part of the equation. Conscious breathing quiets the mind, calms the nervous system and generally helps in making fearless choices, especially when they may not be popular choices.

LK: I’m more aware of everything because of the breath. The breath forms the basis for everything that I do. Physically, spiritually, emotionally, practically, physiologically…this essentially is tapas (discipline) and ishvara pranidana (devotion)… so you could say my life is a svadyaya (self-study) because the breath allows me to understand the aspects of my life I have some control of and what I need to surrender to.

One of my teachers says asana is powerful but pranayama is twice as powerful. Do you agree or disagree?

JW: It is not really possible to compare the two. They are each very unique practices that move energy in different ways with different results. Though pranayama can be much more powerful at moving energy and affecting the nervous system than asana, I believe that both are equally effective at enhancing mind, body, and spirit on all levels: physical, energetic, emotional, and psychological.

JB: It depends on what pranayama we are talking about and how it is employed. In my practice, there is no separation between asana and pranayama. Asana is pranayama.

ER: I agree. I just completed Richard Freeman’s month long teachers’ intensive in Boulder, Colorado this summer (Yes, I love being a student!), and the pranayama sessions with him rocked my world. It was humbling and mysterious, and somehow, my eyes were more wide open afterwards. All this being said, Richard teaches the asana from the vantage point of the internal forms of yoga: the breath and bandhas. The brilliance of his teaching creates a seamless connection between pranayama and the asana. Therefore, I no longer view them as separate. The integration is indescribably powerful.

LK: I don’t make a strong distinction between asana and pranayama. I would say that yoga is powerful. And yoga is about bringing the mind, the body and the breath together. I don’t consider the practice of postures to be yoga unless the breath is involved. We bring the breath into the practice of asana and we bring the stillness of the body, the asana, into the practice of breathing.

If you could offer one pranayam practice for city dwellers, which would you pick and why?

JW: Most New Yorkers are type A personalities and build up and carry a lot of stress. I would recommend Chandra Bedhana (Chandra is moon and Bedhana means passing through) because it is one of the most mellowing techniques.

JB: Ujjayi pranayama because it is the most tangible, practical, and useful technique I have ever learned and taught. I know countless people who have successfully employed ocean-breathing to stave off panic attacks, get through cancer treatments or just center themselves in challenging moments. Essentially, it is a homeopathic muscle relaxant and antidepressant.

ER: It depends on the day. In general, Ujjayi is the great one to cultivate. How wonderful to feel the ocean inside amongst the skyscrapers. And, then again, when I detect very active minds in the room, I call for a long, purifying round of breath of fire!

LK: Kapalabhati because it is a cleansing breath. It is a very strong way of coordinating the action of the abdominals and the diaphram and is a great starting point to developing the coordination for doing more advanced practices.


Julie Wilcox co-founded ISHTA Yoga in 2008 with Alan Finger. She is Executive Director of the studio as well as a senior teacher and teacher trainer. Julie is a dedicated yogini and fitness and food junkie whose mission is to help her clients evolve outwardly and inwardly, slowly and with discipline.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at

Elizabeth Rossa is the founder/director of SHRIYOGA, which was voted “Best Next Generation of Yoga” by New York Magazine in 2005, and since, has continued to evolve as a yoga community intent on cultivating curiosity in how the ancient practices of yoga, pranayama and meditation are relevant right here, right now.

Leslie Kaminoff is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar. He is the founder of The Breathing Project, a New York City yoga institute dedicated to the teaching of individualized, breath-centered yoga and is the co-author of the bestselling book, “Yoga Anatomy.”