Master the Breath, Master the Mind

Often when we attend any asana class, we will be reminded to “breathe consciously” when we are entering and exiting a pose or simply just holding a pose. It is through the breath that we are able to navigate through different levels of consciousness. Breathing consciously also has an organic effect on our mental, emotional, and physical state.

Being fully aware of our breath is a method for being present. When we bring our focus to the breath; we let go of the past and future and in turn we are focused on the moment. For this reason, breathing consciously is its own meditation.

When we breathe consciously we activate a different part of our brain. The autonomic function of unconscious breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain, while conscious breathing comes from the more developed areas of the brain in the cerebral cortex. Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions. By bringing our attention to the breath, we are able to control aspects of the mind, causing our consciousness to rise from instinctual to awareness.

Conscious alteration of our breathing pattern, can produce different states of mind. For example, deliberately slowing down the breath has an impact on our emotional state. When the cerebral cortex is activated through consciously controlling the exhalation, it sends inhibitory impulses to the respiratory centre in the midbrain. These inhibitory impulses from the cortex activates the hypothalamus, which is concerned with emotions, and relaxes this area. Conscious deep inhalation and especially exhalation has a soothing effect on our emotional state.

In the early stages of my yoga journey, whenever I got into a pose that challenged me a great deal, I would subconsciously hold my breath, clench my teeth and tense my shoulders, accompanied with emotions of stress, annoyance along with a voice that told me it was too hard and I should give up. Yet, when I focused on my breath, backed off a little and worked through it patiently, it created a space for my mind; it becomes quieter and a sense of calm awareness washes over me. It is in that moment that the breath has allowed me to delve deeper into the pose and appreciate the stillness and awareness from within.


Is it normal to sleep during yoga?

Being someone who has the tendency to fall asleep when not doing something of a certain engagement level can create a fair few problems. Dozing off during class comes across as disrespectful and uninterested although this is not the case for me! I’ve faced this issue from as early on in my life as I can remember. Maybe it’s a combination of growing up in an era where media is causing attention span to decrease, maybe it’s a genetic disorder, I don’t know.

It is close to the end of the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training course and I have fallen asleep during Shavasana almost after the end of each practical class. I have also fallen asleep while holding various sitting and supine poses. So I research about whether it is normal to sleep during yoga and it is completely normal! (Phew.) It also shows that you are in a state of relaxation, a goal of yoga practice.

However, if like me, you would like to not fall asleep during yoga, here are some recommended poses.

Breath of Joy (Pranayama)
Upward-Facing Salute – Urdhva Hastasana
Downward Facing Dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana
Reverse/Exalted Warrior Pose – Viparita Virabhadrasana
Dancer Pose – Natarajasana

Besides these poses, I feel like inversions also help me to feel more awake. Although I still sleep in class, I don’t think that this is an issue that can be resolved overnight and other measures need to be taken as well. First and foremost, ample sleep. Secondly, a classmate of mine who practices qigong shared with me her knowledge regarding pressure points, saying that pressing firmly onto certain pressure points on my body would aid with my blood circulation and hopefully help me stay awake during class. This is similar to the concept of chakras that we are taught in yoga. Apologies to my non-Mandarin reading friends but I’m sure a quick Google check can provide you with information!

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Any points showed on the red and blue lines pressed during 7 to 9 in the morning would be the most effective.

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There are three indentations at the back of our head, those are also pressure points that are easily accessible to be pressed by ourselves to help relieve fatigue.

Yoga is about going with the flow and not fighting our body’s desires and signals.

Do note that sleep and yogic sleep (aka yoga nidra) is different. Yoga evaluates the overall state of the mind and body by the relative proportion of three inherent qualities: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Sattva is associated with calm awareness. Rajas is the principle of movement and activity. When out of balance, it can lead us off on mental tangents and manifest in the body as twitches and jerks. Tamas is the force of gravity and gives a sense of groundedness. In excess, it can be felt as a restrictive heaviness, dragging the conscious mind into sleep. Falling asleep during relaxation practices is usually a sign that the quality of tamas is excessive or the quality of rajas is deficient. The practice of systematic relaxation requires a balance between rajas and tamas so that we are grounded and comfortably present in the body, but at the same time alert and mentally attentive. When both conditions are present, our consciousness can rest in sattvic self-awareness.

This Sattvic self-awareness can be achieved through yoga nidra, a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping that occurs during the stage where we enter deep sleep. The yogic goal of both paths, deep relaxation (yoga nidra) and meditation are the same, a state of meditative consciousness called samadhi.

I hope my post has been reassuring and informative to those who face the same problem as I do!


This has been a period of ‘firsts’: I gave my first yoga lesson, and my friend had her first ever yoga lesson from me. She said afterwards: “I realized I don’t really know how to breathe.” Such a simple, yet profound statement, made me think about why breathing is so important.

One of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, which is sometimes translated as ‘extension of prana’ (breath / life force) or ‘breath control’. Different Pranayama and breathing techniques can be used for different reasons, and with different benefits.

Some benefits are immediately felt, for example with sheetali / sheetkari breathing – sucking air through the tongue or teeth to help cool the body. You can immediately feel the cooling effect of evaporation, as air passes over your tongue.

Other benefits can be observed over time. For example, a study has shown that daily Pranayama practice resulted in statistically significant reduction of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure over a period of 6 weeks.

Other benefits may be even more subtle. A recent study has shown that breathing has a direct effect on the levels of noradrenaline in the brain, a natural chemical messenger, which “If produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”

Some people – swimmers, singers, actors – train specifically in how to control their breathing, in order to get the most out of their performance. The physiological benefits of Pranayama on the body are already well understood. But when considered as one of the limbs of yoga, it could be said that Pranayama helps us to get the most out of our lives.

I was grateful that I could help my friend become more aware of her breathing. And I hope she will not only learn ‘how to breathe’, but also reap the benefits.

Nadi Shodhana – My personal experience

My life has always been hard. For many years I had always done things for the sake of my family. I never did expect anything in return. I have always been a person who gives much more than I have received until the day I lost everything in life. It was 7 years back that I lost my house, family, CPF and all the money I had. I was devastated and it took me about 2 months to pull myself back together. It was during that time when I remembered the “Alternate Nostril Breathing” that I was taught when I was in India back in 2007. I started practicing it daily and I managed to calm myself down. Things became clearer in my mind and I started rebuilding my life back up again.

By practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing, one can experienced the following:

  • Settles stress and anxiety
  • Improves the ability to focus in the mind
  • Supports our lungs and respiratory functions
  • Restores balance in the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and clears the energetic channels
  • Rejuvenates the nervous system
  • Removes toxins

After that very bad experience in my life, I have learnt to practice Nadi Shodhana more regularly.

Just keep breathing.

In Yoga we are told that breath is the singular most important thing. We’ve all been told by our yoga teachers to breathe deeply, to consciously bring awareness to our breaths, to synchronize breath and movement, and so on. Indeed, I’ve come to learn during this course that the power of our breaths is truly astonishing and far-reaching. Our breath is the key to unlocking our true potential.

Breath is life.
Breathing is the most essential function of the body that can be directly controlled. It not only powers our cardiovascular system (we would die in a matter of minutes if we stopped breathing), but also serves as a critical ingredient in all our body’s electro-chemical processes. As Swami Sivananda said, “A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.” Thus, learning to control, extend, and maximize each breath we take is the key to longevity.

Conscious breathing heals.
Unconscious breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain, while conscious breathing comes from the more evolved areas of the brain in the cerebral cortex which impact emotions and thoughts. This helps promote mental clarity and focus, an inner calm. This also helps removes blockages to allow prana to flow more freely to enable the body to heal and repair more quickly.

Pranayama is a powerful tool.
Prana means life, vitality, or energy, which is inherent in our breath. Ayama means length, expansion, or control. Thus, pranayama is the extension and control of the breath. Using ancient pranayama techniques passed down through Yogic tradition, we can regulate our physical and mental states to achieve homeostasis, i.e. healthy body and mind. Additionally, Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras instructs the use of breath to achieve higher states of consciousness, i.e. spiritual growth.

Asana without proper breath is… not Yoga.
Proper breathing technique during Asana makes a meaningful difference in ability, awareness, safety and comfort. More importantly, not breathing defeats the purpose of practicing Asana in the first place, which is to prepare the body and mind for a meditative state to aid spiritual growth. Without the breath to connect the body and mind, Yoga would just be gymnastic!

Understanding Mudras

Mudra means ‘seal’ or ‘gesture’ and we use them in yoga to facilitate the flow of energy. By placing the hands in certain positions, it helps to stimulate parts of the brain. We often use mudras in pranayama and mediation, but you may also be familiar with them in some asanas too.

Each of our five fingers represents one of the five elements that make up the universe and mudras help to balance the elements within us:

  • Thumb – fire
  • Index finger – air
  • Middle finger – ether/space
  • Ring finger – earth
  • Little finger – water

Gyana Mudra, also know as chin mudra, brings the thumb and index finger together, with the other three fingers gently outstretched. Gyana mudra is known as the gesture of knowledge – palms facing up allows you to receive and palms resting on the knees, facing down is observed for feeling more grounded.

Prana Mudrais the mudra of life and is performed by touching the tip of the thumb with the tips of the ring and little finger together, keeping the other two fingers extended. Observing this mudra provides energy and strong health, stimulating the entire body.

Shunya Mudra is performed to reduce the space element in the body. Bending the middle finger and holding with the base of the thumb, gently apply pressure with the thumb, just below the knuckle. Practicing shunya mudra is thought to provide relief from a range of hearing and balance issues and it can be performed for 15 minutes up to 3 times a day.

Varun Mudra– by touching the tip of the thumb and little finger together, varun mudra, the water mudra, reduces dryness in the body particularly the skin.

Anjali Mudra – bringing the palms together at the heart center symbolizes honor and respect. Anjali means ‘to offer’ and this mudra is often performed at the beginning or end of an asana practice – it connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain and represents the yogic unity.

Try practicing some of these mudras and observe how you feel over time…





The Humming Bee!

Do you love nature? Do you love music? Do you like to meditate?

Yes, I do.

My new found love is this Bhramari pranayama, which calms my mind instantly and prepare me for meditation.

Bhramari means ‘the Goddess of bees’. In Bhramari pranayama the humming sound is produced during exhalation.

The father of modern science, Albert Einstein said – “Everything in life is vibration”. In fact, this pranayama has a soothing effect on the brain and calms the mind.


Sit in a comfortable cross legged pose, with spine erect.

  • Breathe normally and relax the body.
  • Keep your eyes and mouth closed.
  • You may choose to close your ears with your hands. Another variation is you can keep your hands in chin mudra, place on your thighs and keep your ears open.
  • Concentrate at the center of your forehead.
  • Take a slow deep inhalation and fill the lungs fully.
  • Then exhale slowly, making a continuous humming sound like the bee. Feel the vibrations in your head.
  • Repeat the process 5 times and come back to normal breathing.


  • Calms the mind, reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Helps to reduce anger.
  • Improves concentration and prepare you for meditation


  • Better do this pranayama in empty stomach.
  • Stop the practice if you feel dizzy.
  • Do not press the ear cartilage too hard.

Hum a happy tune for peace!


Is Kapalabhati beneficial for you?

If you haven’t heard about Kapalabhati before, I will tell you what I learned last week in my Yoga Teacher Training. Kapalabhati was the first learning of the entire course and I now understand why. It is a Kriya or cleaning method used by yogis to clear the forehead Nadi and the mind from any thought. It also helps improving your respiratory system, sinus, nostrils as well as increases your energy levels, improving your concentration and even your digestive system. Some people also refer to the Kapalabhati as a pranayama or breathing exercise as I could read in the B.K.S. Iyengar book: Light on Pranayama.

Kapalabhati is a Sanskrit word formed by kapala that means skull and bathi meaning light or shine. It is considered to be beneficial for multiple things, that’s why it’s recommended to be practiced first thing in the morning on a daily basis.

How to practice Kapalabhati:

  1. Sit on the floor in cross leg position keeping your back straight and your hands on the knees with the Chin Mudra
  2. Keep your mouth and eyes closed during the exercise
  3. Inhale through your nostrils
  4. Exhale vigorously and quickly contracting  the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles to push the air out of your nostrils (let the exhalation make a hissing sound)
  5. Keep your body relax, with the chest and shoulders still while doing the practice
  6. Inhale again keeping a regular rhythm for every breath  and repeat the cycle 30 times

Note: to make sure you practice Kapalabhati correctly, press your lower abdomen with your hand while exhaling and feel how it moves inward contracting your muscles. You can also start helping yourself pressing with your hand until your muscles understand the movement.


As everything in life this technique, even when it has lots of benefits, also has some contraindications mostly when practised in determined situations or if you have some health issues. So please be aware of them before starting to practice Kapalabhati to prevent any discomfort or injury.

Benefits of Kapalabhati:

  • Is beneficial for the respiratory system, treating any sinus problem
  • Improves digestion, and strengthen the abdominals muscles
  • Increases the focus and concentration
  • Boosters the energy so it’s recommended practising it in the morning
  • Promotes immune system function
  • Warms the body, so it’s a good practice in cold countries
  • Cleanses the toxins of the organism

Contraindications to the practice of Kapalabhati:

  • Pregnancy
  • Hypertension
  • Heart conditions
  • After any surgery
  • Abdominal pain
  • Depression or any mental illness
  • After eating or drinking (wait at least 2 hours after eating to practice this technique)


So, if you have never tried Kapalabhati before and you don’t have any of the contraindications, why don’t you follow these few steps and experience by yourself the benefits of this Kriya method?

You can start practising the Kapalabhati 3 rounds per day in the morning or afternoons. Remember that nothing is good in excess, so start slowly and increase the pace and strength of your exhalations enjoying all the positive benefits of Kapalabhati.


Adriana Esquivel

How to Hold Your Breath

This is a good skill to have if you wish to take up freediving as a hobby. Or if you run into someone trying to strangle you. 

Yogis (and freedivers) can hold their breaths for extended periods of time. A number of techniques in yoga practice is useful for lengthening the period in which you can hold your breath. The average lung capacity is 4 litres for women and 6 litres for men. You can directly impact your lung capacity and effectiveness with knowledge of yogic pranayama (breathing techniques), asanas (physical postures) and meditation techniques. 

Awareness of Intercostal Muscles: The intercostal muscles run between and around your ribs. With awareness of how these muscles function and operate, you can expand the area covered by your ribcage on every inhale, which increases the volume of air that you can bring into your lungs. Ideally, your ribs should be able to expand sideways, giving additional room for your lungs to fill with air. Practice with a twisted yoga pose such as Marichiyasana C or D, which requires that you engage your intercostal muscles fully in order to continue taking deep breaths in the pose. 

Breathing Techniques: The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle when relaxed, and flattened when contracted. It extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity which separates your heart and lungs from your abdomen. During inhalations, the diaphragm contracts flat to create space for your lungs to expand. Yogic pranayama techniques such as Kapalabathi and Ujjayi trains your diaphragm further by bringing your awareness to how it feels and works in your body when you practice a variety of breathing exercises. In Kapalapathi, you forcefully pump the air out of your lungs by engaging your abdomen muscles. In Ujjayi breath, you lengthen the period of exhale by slowing down the amount of air released from your lungs. 

Meditation: Calming your mind and reducing the amount of thoughts in your head reduces the body’s metabolic rate, which slows down the conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide, allowing you to go longer on the air that you already have. When you start holding your breath, you begin with a mental battle with yourself to believe that your body can survive on the oxygen available to it. In meditation techniques, you are supposed to hold that thought and let it disappear from your mental horizon, thus in a sense ignoring your mind and body’s compulsion to breathe. When you are very relaxed in meditation, you will find that you have dramatically slowed down your pace of breath. 

Here is a simple exercise that you can do to start practising: 

  • Come to a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes. 
  • Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 6 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds. 
  • Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 18 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds.  
  • Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 24 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds. 
  • Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 48 seconds, and exhale for 24 seconds. 

It takes time, technique, and a lot of patience. You will find that your capacity to hold your breath improves. 

In the meantime, don’t hold your breath!


– Vanessa Tang –