Sharath has recently said some very illuminating things about the length and duration of the breath in practice. In her report on the December 18th conference in Mysore, Suzy writes that Sharath has this to say about the breath during practice:
"In practice the inhale and exhale should be the same duration – you have to bring that rhythm in you. Some people do very shallow breathing – the breath doesn’t go inside. If you do relaxed breathing so that the breath does go inside, this activates jatar agni (digestive fire). If you have pain in your lower back or pelvis, if you do deep breathing into that area, this is how the body heals."
I think this is one of the clearest and most lucid explanations that I have read in a while about the relationship between the breath and healing in asana practice (Thanks for posting this, Suzy :-)).
There is actually another, related reason for maintaining inhalation and exhalation at equal length. My teacher in Milwaukee once observed that people who are new to the practice have a tendency to have short, abrupt inhalations and long, forceful exhalations: These practitioners appear to be "sucking" in the inhalation, and then expelling the air through a longer, forceful exhalation.
Actually, I don't think it's just new practitioners who do this: "Old" practitioners also tend to lapse into this breathing pattern when they encounter challenging postures in the practice (Kapotasana is a prime example; I'm speaking from experience, of course :-)). In any case, my teacher observes that one who breathes this way ends up releasing more prana than one takes in: As a result, more prana is "lost" to the surroundings than taken in, and the practice tends to leave the practitioner more tired than refreshed. Because of this, it is important to make a conscious effort to keep the inhalation the same length as the exhalation, so that one does not lose energy while breathing.
And then there is the question of volume: How loudly or softly should one breathe during practice? This seems to me to be a less clear-cut matter. Many of us have probably heard funny (or not-so-funny) stories about Ashtangis who have loud Darth Vader breaths that can be heard a mile away (okay, I'm exaggerating, but probably not by too much...). In the course of my, uh, practice career, I have also had the dubious fortune of practicing beside a few such individuals. Actually, I don't really know how loud my own breathing is, so I probably shouldn't be judging anybody here...
In any case, I have a couple of questions here. Is there anything bad or wrong with breathing like Darth Vader, other than the possibility of annoying one's shalamates and becoming the butt of shala jokes? Is breathing loudly in any way deleterious to one's practice on a physical or prana level? Or--to borrow a turn of phrase that has become very popular in the yoga blogosphere lately--can breathing loudly wreck your body?
If you have anything to share about this, I'll love to hear from you.
Lord Vader performing Utthita-Light-Saber-Padangusthasana
[Image taken from here]