Yesterday morning, after led primary, the woman next to me asked, “Where did you learn to breath like that?!” I smiled, and thought of my teacher, and told her it’s taken hard work. Someone once said to me breathing is the most intimate relationship we have throughout our lives. The very first thing we do in this body, as well, the very last, is take a breath. Coming to terms with and surrendering to our breath, or fighting it, is a daily battle for many of us. You would think, as something we usually take for granted and in most parts of our days, the breathing process is just automatic and therefore we are experts. Throw activity, irritants, heat, cold, anxiety, fear, pain, laughter, hiccups, sickness, deviated septums, and choking among others I’m most certainly forgetting right now, into the mix and breathing can go haywire. However learning to control your breath can completely change your life, bringing relaxation, calm, mindfulness, and serenity.
I admit, I wasn’t very good at it. Health issues, fear and just my basic constitution had all inhibited my ability to breath right. I’m still no expert..everyday brings it’s own new struggles and moments to learn from.
Ashtanga yoga is all about the breath. When I first started ashtanga, I could barely keep my mouth closed, that was enough of a struggle, and yet I was also trying to control my breath count as well, in led classes I would even feel as if I was just holding my breath, and never could get enough back inside. It was an immensely masochistic activity. So much intensity and effort went into to each and every inhale and exhale. I shudder at the memory, yet I kept coming back to the mat. I had moments where all went well for a nanosecond but backbending and the traditional pachimottanasa afterwards were a combo one two punch for all the good work I had done leading up to it. My past impressions of fear of suffocation would seize my brain making me hyperventilate..I cringe feeling sorry for whomever was practicing nearby me in those moments.
I had teachers always working with me on it. To me, I felt It was the weakest link of my asana practice. No prana no true asana. Sometimes if I let myself get too quickly paced, which I’m naturally inclined to do, I still can lose it in parts of practice, but I’m usually able to reset back down a notch or two. A favorite thought is imagining my breath as calm but powerful waves on the ocean, ebbing and flowing. Melting in an asana and staying until there is equilibrium between inhale and exhale helps, but the key for me is exhaling fully, enjoying the natural pause, then inhaling, ideally, as deeply.
Getting there has been a physical as well as mental part of practice. Aristotle so wisely said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Stop believing the false impressions. Surrender, faith, letting go, and ultimately relaxing in the knowledge that the worst case scenario is that I’d pass out so my autonomic function could reset, in a computer like reboot..I’m quite happy that has never actually happened! But all learned from practice, from guidance of a highly skilled teacher. I was taught to practice sutra neti as well. (Don’t mock it till you try it!) The intimacy of breath and vulnerability of the fear that losing your breath can bring forth are intense aspects of the practice, at least for me. I can say now, I’m immensely grateful for all those assists, by every teacher, past and present, more so than for help in any asana. The power of breath, and learning to control it versus being controlled by it, is central to practice. Yoga Sutra 1.34 prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama. The mind is (also) calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice. I’m grateful for the meditative state and calm it brings to me everyday, especially when it works!