by Grace Gallagher: I’ve been practicing yoga for close to 15 years, and even before I started practicing, I was constantly surrounded by people doing yoga…
Let me explain. My mother is what you might call an early adopter of Western yoga. She started teaching lessons in our home in the mid-’90s. Before there was Lululemon, Swell water bottles, and eco-friendly mats, there were suburban mothers in sweatpants Savasaning in my living room.
Instead of yoga mats, they practiced on quilted moving pads. It was not uncommon for my friends to sleep over only to wake up to the sight of my mom and some strangers doing headstands in our family room or backbends over our piano bench.
I imagine this was strange for my friends in the same way it’s strange to realize other families use a different percent milk than you’re used to: eye-opening, yes, but not all that unsettling. (Also, 1 percent for life.)
I avoided yoga through high school, probably because I was a teenager and it was something my mom was trying to get me to do. But I picked it up in college when I was no longer playing sports and needed an outlet for my energy.
I quickly fell in love with the practice — it made me feel stronger and calmer, and I started sleeping better. Now I try to get to yoga at least twice a week and do an online video on the days when I can’t make it out (read: when it’s under 30 degrees).
I was in my favorite class recently when the teacher said, “OK, friends, breathe into your left hip. Breathe all the way into your little toe.” I’ve heard variations of this cue at least 50 times, but this time it struck me in a new, more irritating way. What does that actually mean? How exactly does one breathe into their toes?
I’m not typically one to accept something as truth without understanding why. I was the kid who urgently needed to know why the sky was blue and why humans had belly buttons before I could carry on with business as usual.
So I started thinking about the many things I hear in yoga without understanding why they’re true. I did what anyone would do and went on a quest to find answers to my most pressing yoga questions. After much research and interviews with four yoga teachers, I’m sharing my findings below.
I asked Lauren Larry, founder of Sunny Sankalpa Yoga, what it means when a teacher says to breathe into your toe or your hip or any body part that’s not a lung.
“This is actually a descriptor that I found confusing as a yoga student,” Larry says. “When you ‘breathe’ into a part of your body, picture the body part and relax the muscles around it.”
“As you bring awareness to that area of the body, contract and release the muscle you’re focusing on. Bring awareness to the body part mentioned in your inhale, and release tension on the muscles on your exhale. When you release tension in that muscle, you’re ‘breathing’ into the muscle.”
Ann Swanson, MS, certified yoga therapist and author of “Science of Yoga,” adds, “This is just a visualization to help bring your awareness to the area, increasing interoception, or internal body awareness. You cannot actually ‘breathe into’ a body part except your lungs. For that reason, I prefer to add ‘imagine’ before a cue like that.”
Breathing into a part of your body other than your lungs is impossible, but by bringing awareness to a certain part of your body, you can send energy to it.
Andrea Trank, founder of Heaven Lane Creations, which provides customized yoga lessons and lifestyle coaching, says, “Energetically, when you breathe into an area, you are sending energy, attention, and possibly healing to this area. When you are moving as you do in yoga, with breath awareness, you are helping to circulate freshly oxygenated blood to all parts of your body involved in the practice.”
I often feel panicky (definitely not the feeling yoga is intended to evoke) when teachers instruct the class to “set an intention.” From this anxiety comes a certain level of snark, and my intention can end up being something as thoughtless as “just let me make it through this class.”
I realized this anxious feeling arises because I’m not clear on what it means to set an intention and I worry I’m the only one doing it “wrong.” I remember feeling this way in math class when we were learning proofs — I had such trouble grasping the concept that I didn’t even know what questions to ask to get a clearer understanding.
Ever been there? Yeah, it sucks. So what exactly does it mean to set an intention?
“I often start a yoga class by asking my students if they want to set an ‘intention’ for their practice.” Trank says. “It could be for yourself, a friend in need. or something that is needed by the world. It allows your practice to be more than just a physical asana practice. It becomes a spiritual practice as well.”
Ali Owens, a certified yoga instructor and contributor to the yogawakeup app, tells her students that setting an intention can be a powerful way to bring meaning to your practice, whether by connecting with your breath or adding more love and joy to your life.
Setting an intention can be as simple as focusing on one word during your practice. Some people may focus on “ease” or “peace” or “love.”
The Sanskrit name for intention is “Sankalpa.” “This is the deepest desire of your heart. It’s more than a goal of nailing a headstand,” Larry says. “It’s the embodiment of what you would like to manifest in life. It’s a word, a phrase, or even an emotion you would like to embody.”
She continues, “Find something you want in the big picture of your life, like grace under fire or forgiveness. When you pick your intention, come back to it during class. You’ll notice your classes have a new meaning.”
One word seems manageable to me!