Pay Attention to the Beginning of the Inhale
If you're a regular ashtanga yoga practitioner, or studied with Kathy and I for any period of time, then you know that the breathing system is the heart of the practice and our teaching. Non-practitioners have no idea how difficult it really is to achieve smooth, even, and rhythmic ujjayi breathing throughout a 90 minute (or longer) practice. The improvement and refinement of this breathing system is a decades long endeavor, but there is a specific technique which goes a long way toward fixing erratic and labored breathing that we routinely observe in our students.
The technique we recommend is simply to direct your awareness to the very beginning of the inhale. Make sure that the beginning is as GENTLE and SMOOTH as possible. When accomplished, this action sets the stage for the entire breath (inhale and exhale) to follow suit. This is of course more difficult than it sounds, especially when you are working hard in your practice or are engaged in a particularly troublesome asana(s). That is also when most students start to RUSH the beginning of the inhale; i.e., they try to quickly suck air into the body. It is a natural reaction to difficult or problematic asanas, or when you are getting tired or winded in the practice. The problem is that when students try to quickly suck in air, the inhale gets "stuck" or "choked off"; and the resulting breath is labored and erratic; which just compounds the problem. In addition, a quick and forceful beginning to the inhale tends to heighten the sense of "panic" which students can feel when working the "edges" of their practice.
By contrast, if students will just remember to be patient and keep the beginning of the inhale as gentle and smooth as possible, they will find it much easier to relax and stay present in the midst of the intensity. This ability then speeds progress, improves concentration, and most importantly helps to prevent injuries due to over exertion.
To review, bring your awareness to the beginning of each inhale and make it as gentle and smooth as possible. The key is to be patient, and then let the remainder of the breath follow suit. I promise this simple mindfulness practice will greatly improve the quality of your overall yoga practice. Give it a try and let us know what you think.