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breath – it’s simply a big deal.

October 28, 2013

Here’s my point – nothing lifts me up like a solid, deep breath.     It used to be a glass of wine that relieved me, or watching hours of Sex and the City or forcing myself to take a sweaty power yoga class. I’m still guilty for all the above but I now follow my gut (ahem, my lungs) when looking for peace rather than the persuasions of my mind…

left lung on yoga

It took 14 years of practicing yoga to reach this point.

Breath – what’s the big deal?

It’s commonly referred to as: a life force, purifier of toxic energy, a de-stressor (or a source of anxiety), it is how our organs receive oxygen and is an agent to help find pauses in time or pauses before reactions. It is symbolic in its power as the giver of life from the first breath in as a newborn to the final expiration at the end of life. As Georg Feuerstein says “it makes sense to want our every breath to count and Yoga makes this possible”.

This sentiment is what makes a yoga practice special: opening to a deep appreciation for our inherent ability to breathe and create calm in our lives. Pranayama (breath expansion or breath control) techniques are intentional breathing exercises that are incorporated into yoga classes, united with poses and movement, practiced during meditation practice, or even while walking down the street. Regular pranayama practice is a big deal because it can alter the state of any nervous system.

“Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing causes a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest, relax and digest part of the nervous system – therefore reducing the heart rate, relaxing the muscles, relaxing the mind and normalizing brain function.” (Georgina Morgan)

“When you learn the breathing techniques it will positively affect your actions and thoughts. Every thought we have changes the rhythm of our breath. When we are happy breathing is rhythmic and when we are stressed breathing is irregular and interrupted. Mastering the art of breathing is a crucial step towards self-healing and survival.” (Nahid Ameen)

 

Today I dropped into a yoga class in New York City and no matter how diligently the teacher emphasized Ujjayi pranayama, the erratic breathing habits of yogis around me were pronounced. One person next to me wouldn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) stop her erotic sighing. Her emotions were dripping off her. One person in front of me was taking such short breaths, it’s no wonder they kept manically pacing from the prop wall to the water fountain throughout class. I left class slightly disheveled and feeling like I had misplaced that feeling of ‘oneness’ that often lingers after practice.  It’s these moments that I remember we all have to start the process of changing habits somewhere…

I walked out into the diverse crowds in the streets of New York and observed all the people zipping past me as individual containers in which energy and breath are created and need to be harnessed. No matter our level of experience or what state our minds are in – a grounded connection to ourselves and others is attained through awareness of breath: returning home to the involuntary and natural action of breath. And returning home is a shaky journey that involves stops along the way, getting lost, asking for guidance and at best: a few steps forward.

My teacher says that we only use about 70% of our lung capacity, a number that I share with students in class to express how we exclude a part of ourselves in our daily interactions. Our minds and breaths rarely work in synchronicity – now that’s a big deal! In simplest terms pranayama is a way to find control when any illness or imbalance takes over. I like to have control over my breath, my reactions, my schedule and basically whatever storms rumble my way. I love introducing pranayama this way to students – take the power back! You’re the boss of your life and your breath! (ie, don’t let that water fountain fool you! YOU are the boss!). And this perspective works, initially.

 

Naturally, when learning about breath, we need a hook (ie-my emotions are out of control or I cannot sit still during yoga class) and a starting point (a style of pranayama that will tend to my dis-ease) to encourage us that we can create change.  We need to be convinced that it’s worthwhile to ‘make every breath count’.

I strongly believe that yoga teaches us awareness and self-control. I used to preach about the self-empowerment I discovered through breath and movement but my tune changed as my relationship with self and breath changed. My drive to test my physical limits and focus on intense pranayama work has decreased. The people I look up to as mentors have shifted as well. Now it’s intention and commitment to ‘letting go’ of the fruits of my efforts that feel right for me. Therefore, I constantly turn to the wise words ‘let go’.  Now that is a big deal.  After years of dedicated efforts to consciously make every breath count, we can slowly turn to ‘let go’ (a fundamental tenet of yoga is ishvara pranidhana, surrender of all actions up to the universe/god). In this selfless philosophy lies the subtle teaching of guiding breath without control and only trust.  The effects of being with breath and trusting its soothing nature can affects our emotions, as Leslie Kaminoff so beautifully explains…

 

“Stop struggling to inhale, and when you take care of the exhale, the inhale takes care of itself. That’s sort of one of the aphorisms that we work with breathing. In other words, make the space in your body, and the universe will fill it. It always does, it always will. Someone who has a chronic breathing disorder does not live in that universe. They live in the universe of “I need to take this next breath because it’s not there for me and it’s my effort, my inhale that’s filling me up.” But that’s actually not true. The energy that gets the breath into your body is not in your body at all. It’s outside of you. It’s the atmospheric pressure. It’s the weight of the air molecules that we live inside of, which is pretty heavy. It’s 14.7 pounds per square inch at sea level. And those molecules want to push their way into your body. All you need to do is make the space.

… sometimes just hearing a concept can shift your whole perspective including your body and your breath… you can just relax and let the universe do its job of filling your body with air molecules and you’ll have a whole lot less of a struggle. And you can just see something shift. And you relax. And finally, for the first time maybe, you trust that the breath is going to be there for you.”

(Leslie Kaminoff)

 

It’s so simple – no mat needed, no fancy clothes, no soundtrack, no elaborate moves or sequencing. Keep presenting just yourself.  Keep in mind that pranayama will lengthen your life energy and undoubtedly shifts perspective. Try different breath techniques, as each pranayama will affect you differently and at different stages in your life. More and more, yoga and pranayama teach us to let go of control and to trust that the universe and the breath will fill you. They always have.

 

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