Thursday, August 4, 2011

Some thoughts on breathing

I have threatened once or twice to write about breathing. A lot of well-qualified people have written about breathing; just search the web and you will turn up all kinds of interesting stuff. Try it: google “pranayama” and read some of the stuff. It's a little arrogant of me to think that I have anything to offer. In addition, I used to talk about breathing every class I taught; so it makes me wonder what there is left for me to say about it. After all, it's pretty easy – most of the time. One of those life skills that we don't think about too much, until it becomes a struggle. I know that all too well since my Mother suffered from emphysema for many years. The very act of breathing can become just too difficult, just too much hard work to carry on every day. It's the first thing we do in life and it's the last thing we do.

Most of the time our body just gets on with the job. The autonomous nervous system takes care of that, along with heartbeats and digestion and a few critical items that are too important to be dependent on a conscious decision. We breathe when we need to; simple as that. So cannot we assume that it will be the same case in the hot room? What is there to talk about when it comes to yoga and breathing? Surely we will continue to breathe when we need to. What difference does it make whether we breathe one way or another, through the mouth or through the nose? As quiet as a mouse or as noisy as Watt's steam engine – who cares? After all, we're making a lot of effort in each posture, aren't we entitled to let those around us know that we really are trying hard? Huffing and puffing and grunting and panting says “listen to me and know how hard I am working”. Sounds to me that is something the Ego would say; the Ego is always on the hunt for recognition.

Some months ago, one of my students was having a really hard time with their practice; it had just fallen apart – balance was gone, flexibility was lost, it was hard for the student to concentrate; and I could hear the student breathing from the other side of the room! After class, I took the person aside and told them to come into their next class and just breathe; don't even do the first set of each asana for a little while until the breath has returned to some semblance of normality. Come into the room, stand still, breathe in and breathe out. That's yoga. Focus on the breath and the body will follow along, getting on with its job of healing itself.

For me, breathing is everything; it is the key to my practice. It is the place to come back to when my attention wanders, as it does often. How I wish I had understood that when I went to teacher training; perhaps my yoga classes there would not have been quite so stressful. It took some time after that experience for me to figure out that the practice, the sequence, all of the asanas meant nothing unless my breathing was controlled, steady, slow and deep, through the nose and quiet. And then everything changed for me. Each class became a journey; my attention improved (although my mind still wanders all over the place) and my concentration grew much better. It became easier to be still. I tried to minimize distractions – the biggest culprit being drinking of course.

[I was so proud of myself during teacher training for learning to drink water while lying flat on my back without drowning – kind of like self water-boarding – so then I could glug away to my heart's content in every floor savasana, much to the aggravation of some students around me who reminded me that it was not such a good idea. But I used survival as an excuse and just carried on. It took me a long while to get that one straight!]

I didn't try to force any posture but rather gave my aging, inflexible, tired body permission to go as far as it could without putting any stress on my breathing. I finally worked out that I had to allow my breath to define the posture. That was a personal break-through. And of course, everything that worked for me in yoga worked for me outside the hot room, in the “real” world. None of this was easy. But accepting the importance of breath was the single, most important lesson for me in yoga, and consequently in my life.

Many years ago, my speech therapist told me over and over again that proper breathing was the key to bring my stammer into some kind of control. For years I had lived with this wild animal inside of me – wishing so often that I was totally dumb so that I could wear a sign that announced “dumb – doesn't talk” and just write little notes to people. Instead, I had to unleash the animal and just let it run riot, totally out of control, one day incoherent and the next marginally comprehensible. Apparently quite normal on the outside but then frighteningly abnormal as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, to buy a bus ticket, to order lunch, to start a conversation with that really cute girl. I was well into my thirties before that beast grew a little tamer, but I know it lives there still, just waiting for the chance to stretch its legs and run again.

The act of breathing doesn't just move air around, bringing that oxygen in and expelling the toxins, but it also moves prana, ki, chi or whatever name that your culture calls it. It is that life giving energy that doesn't show up on x-rays or CRTs or in nuclear medicine and therefore, according to main stream medicine, does not really exist. But ask any acupuncture provider or patient and listen to what they say. There is so much that we don't understand because we cannot reduce it (yet) to measurement, but Asian practitioners have accepted its existence for thousands of years and indeed have built holistic health practices around its force. So when we breathe we are moving, directing, encouraging that prana to flow within and throughout our bodies. You can try this for yourself next time that some joint or muscle gives you a problem, in class or outside. Concentrate your mind on that spot and each time that you exhale, send your breath to that point; imagine the prana flowing in and out of that spot, bringing energy and life to whatever is causing the problem, unblocking whatever is stopping your prana flowing freely through that spot. Yoga is like acupuncture but without the needles. Try it.

Not so long ago, when I was the CFO of a small public company in the USA, I had to present the financial results of the company to equity analysts, fund managers and investors through quarterly telephone conference calls. My speech issues just exacerbated the situation for me and increased the stress level. That was like a roller coaster and then my speech became worse, spiraling downhill and so on. So I learned to take a couple of minutes before the call was scheduled to begin, to close my office door, and to practice my pranayama breathing. It wasn't for too long but it was enough to calm my mind, settle my anxiety and bring my breathing back to a nice slow, deep rhythm. It saved me each time. So my experience is to trust this stuff because it has worked for me; time and again it has saved my life. And the key for me has been breathing.

Maybe I will write more on this next time.

1 comment:

  1. Funny in my most stressed has been in my lack of ability to breathe. I too find that if I just pay attention to how I'm breathing throughout the becomes a compass for how my day is directed. Thank you for reminding us all to just BREATHE.......