People often ask what they should be doing with the breath in the yoga postures. Mostly, I tell them not to worry about how to breathe, but to make sure that they are breathing. When we begin practicing asana, there is a huge learning curve, to focus on the way you breathe can over-ride what is needed in the actions of the body.
That said, however, it is essential to breathe. Oftentimes, we hold the breath because we want to be in control of a situation. Including asana. Say you are in Triangle Pose and you are focusing on all the instruction because you are a good person and you want to do the pose correctly, in fact you’d like it to be the best pose ever and then the instructor says, Breathe and you realize you’ve been holding your breath. This is quite common. So to recognize you’re holding the breath, helps you free up the breath and bring vitality into your posture.
The yogic practice of pranayama is the study of the breath. Often performed in reclined or sitting positions it asks you to expand the breath or blast the breath or even make the sound of a buzzing bee. In Iyengar yoga, pranayama is usually practiced separately from asana.
I carry a lot of tension in my diaphragm. After all these years of practicing yoga, I was quite shocked to discover that my solar plexus was loaded with tension. A variety of fears and anxieties caused me to tighten there (like, say, fear of death). Faced with that realization, I understood how important it was to soften the abdomen and that to release tension I need to do some conscious breath-work.
In classes and workshops, I’d done some pranayama. Lying down, I could appreciate the work, but sitting, I created more tension, anxious to ‘get it right’. (Which is funny, isn’t it?)
A friend of mine passed on Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book. If you have a set of lungs and a functioning body, you should read this book. Beautifully written, Farhi outlines the different breathing patterns most of us adopt over a lifetime -- shallow, reverse, chest, frozen. Most of us have lost the connection to what she calls the Essential breath. A pattern of freed up breath we knew when we were young children.
What I particularly like about Farhi’s approach is her suggestion to ‘un-learn’ habits of breathing. Our tendency is to want to ‘fix’ by adding to, rather than subtracting from, the patterns that already exist.
If you’ve never really explored the breath, or even if you’ve done advanced pranayama, lie on the floor with your knees bent, let your knees fall together and place your hands on your abdomen. Let your eyes close. Relax your face and bring your awareness to your breath. Don’t feel you have to do anything -- making the breath bigger or better -- just allow. Let your breath arise and fall. Rise and fall.
Where in your body do you feel the arising of the breath? Where does it return? What about the space between inhalation and exhalation? The hardest thing is to keep judgement and labeling at bay. With breath awareness, let yourself inquire and be curious without needing to achieve anything.
Farhi offers many insights into the anatomy of breath -- making it quite accessible and poetic. She also outlines asanas that help to free the breath, giving more space to the chest and loosen up the diaphragm.
Imagine if we all spent fifteen minutes with our breath everyday? We might be a happier people. A more relaxed folk, trusting of the wider world.
I leave you with a quote from Robert Henri:
A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not
need to adopt new and startling methods.
There's a scene in Harry Potter where our heroes seek to save the Philosopher's Stone. The leap from the trap door (guarded by the three-headed dog) and are caught by a net of the magical plant: Devil's Snare. Once they drop into the trap tendrils wrap around their arms and legs; the children wriggle to free themselves, but matters only worsen. Finally, brainy Hermione remembers that the way out of the situation is to relax with it.
I've been thinking how this Devil's Snare is a perfect metaphor for the sticky trappings of our minds. The way we find ourselves trapped in certain situations and the way we struggle that only furthers our entrapment.
A few days ago, a familiar pattern of tension rose up my neck and cast its net over my skull. The pain causes discomfort and arises when I've tweaked my shoulder, worked it without awareness, or when I've been trying too hard. As I was in bed, trying to relax, I realized I was experiencing an urgent sense of wanting to rid myself of the pain. This, I realized, only made my tension mount.
Interesting, I thought. And I wondered what would happen if I stopped trying to fix it, stopped trying to make it go away as is so often my habit. Soon, I found all tension sliding away. I realized how much we resist 'what is' in subtle ways. We don't want to feel pain (aversion to pain), so we 'fight' against it. This pain could be as simple as a noise that annoys us or, indigestion. Tension mounts in our resistance to our annoyance, adding fuel to the fire.
Years of asana hone our sensitivity to the subtle changes of our inner bodies/minds. Within a pose, we discover where we are open, both psychologically and physically, and where we create resistance (sometimes within the same asana!). Notice thoughts like: ah, I can't do this pose ... I hate this pose ... I love this pose! ... I've had enough of this pose. All these judgments simply reflect our mental process, we are not required to stop these thoughts from arising, but to notice and be with them. Sometimes, however, we mentally thrash out, adding more judgment (I should stop thinking about how I hate this, what a terrible yogi I am, etc.) Physical cues that guide us to the breath or the relax of the eyes can help quiet the mental noise, loosening its grip.
When an unpleasant experience arises and I find myself bulking in resistance, I like to think of Pema Chodron (a Buddhist nun and author of many books) who says of her Life: I am open, to salty. And I am open to sweet.
All of our experience exists. Not just pleasure, not just pain. And in yoga, we can learn to relax with what arises, to create space, and drop from the tendrils of that Devil's Snare.
Recently, I've become interested in the art of storytelling. Back in November, storyteller, Naomi Steinberg blew my mind with a storytelling workshop. She opened portals of narrative for me that I did not know existed. With her deft facilitation, I literally found myself pulled by a current of ancient stories. The stories are everywhere, but you need to know how to look. And then, you learn how to tell.
Before she came, she'd left instruction to chose a fairy tale. God, I thought. Do I really want to do this? But I had committed. Besides, my friend Jenny had loved it. So, reluctantly I sought out a story to bring. No princesses as beautiful of the moon (so patriarchal!), no talking animals (so juvenile!), no wicked witches (again with the patriarchy...). I chose the Emperor's New Clothes. Beginning. Middle. End.
The thing was, as we worked on the stories, as we unearthed their essences, I found myself longing for the very witches I'd cast away. I wanted a wise woman. A princess. And some strange magic to occur.
But I stuck with my Emperor, his vanity embarrassed me though I could imagine him salivating over the promise of the most exquisite woven cloth. I entered the landscape of the story, touched it with reluctant fingers and found in its centre avarice and pride, shame and naked truth. The very traits that exist in all of us.
The Emperor did rattle me. He brought me to the trading centre of a coastal city and made me feel the absolute vulnerability of a man exposed – naked no less -- to an entire audience of people. My heart ached for him as I left him to walk his long walk back up to the castle.
At the end of the weekend, I was left feeling like I was part of a narrative current. That these ancient wise stories had a way of reaching into us, teaching us if we were only willing to listen.
And so it is with yoga. The tradition of yoga is ancient, its spiritual aims high. (Enlightenment, no less!). Like the stories, yoga asanas are small portals into the human narrative arc. We can observe how we are greedy like the Emperor, perhaps not for cloth, but for a "better" pose. Or, we may go into the pose expecting it to be familiar, only to discover a plot twist that brings us to a new awareness about our bodies or our minds.
As you enter a pose, think of a narrative arc. Beginning. Middle. End. The beginning offers the foundation, the premise for the pose. The middle, remember, is where the plot thickens. How is your body feeling today? The big toe mound is hard to ground. The left side is tighter than the right. The shoulder blades feel free today -- like wings.
Then, you return home. The end of the pose. After the journey. Somehow, at that moment you are changed. If only slightly. Different from when you started.