The Breath of Life
When we are born we breathe in, when we die we breathe out. The space between these two breathes holds the entirety of our life experience here on Earth. While the body that houses our spirit passes away, in some ways the light of our soul never stops burning just as the light of the sun never actually stops shining. From our limited perspective we are not able to see the daylight on the other side of the globe after sunset and it can also be hard for us to accept the eternal nature of our soul. In order to gain the perspective necessary to feel the eternal peace at the core of all life you must transcend the mundane and see everything from an elevated vantage point.
Yoga teaches that the way to cross the bridge into these more rarefied states of being is through the vehicle of the breath. Working with the breath while practicing yoga can not only be challenging, but also sometimes frustrating. Only a very accomplished practitioner can successfully coordinate complex movements with their clam, controlled breath. When I first started practicing yoga I was more interested in the end result of the posture than the subtleties of the breath. In fact it took me years before integrating pranayama, or breath control, into my daily ritual. Only after my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, directly taught me the Ashtanga yoga method of pranayama was I willing to go to this powerful place within. I have now come to understand that without the breath there is in fact no yoga and I am now as inspired by the breath as I am by the postures, if not more. Accomplished postures, acrobatic movements and floating handstands are all just tricks without the steady focus on the breath that is the heart of yoga.
The magic of working with the breath means that when you control the breath you have access to all five koshas, or bodies–physical, mental, emotional energetic and spiritual. Our breath is an action that is controlled by both conscious and unconscious action and therefore gives us access to both the conscious and subconscious mind. The regulation of breathing has an enormous impact on whether we are able to remain calm, healthy and balanced. It is through long, deep inhalation and exhalation that we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to calm down, more commonly known as the Relaxation Response. Nasal breathing deepens the state of relaxation, whereas open mouth breathing sends a signal of distress and panic to the brain. The deep ujjayi breathing taught in Ashtanga yoga stabilizes the heartbeat during strenuous activity, strengthens the cardiovascular system, triggers the Relaxation Response and keeps the mind totally focused within the present moment. Guruji always said that the Ashtanga yoga practice is a breathing practice and that the postures are “just bending”. Keeping your attention on the breath is one of the main points of yoga and without this careful attention to the breath yoga would just be another form of exercise. Yoga brings you into a deeper relationship with yourself by twisting the body into uncomfortable positions and asking you to breathe while you gaze at a single point of attention. The level of complexity necessary at any given moment is enough to stop the mind and create a long pause between the otherwise steady stream of thoughts. The depth of the breath ensures that all the multiple layers of your being are fully present and integrated.
Ashtanga yoga teaches that the equalization of the length of the inhalation and the length of the exhalation is of high importance while practicing. In doing so both sides of the consciousness are balanced. The inhalation can be correlated with receiving, taking in and activity, while the exhalation can be correlated with releasing, giving and restfulness. For postures that are challenging or painful and require greater flexibility it might be useful to focus temporarily on the exhalation. For postures that are challenging but require great strength it might be useful to coordinate the lifting motion with an inhalation in order to maximize the power of the breath.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the yoga practice is that you are asked to maintain a calm, steady breath while the you move through increasing levels of difficulty. It is hard to remember to breathe when a posture is so hard so that all you want to do is hold your breath. When things are difficult, fearful, painful and frustrating there is a natural tendency to hold the breath. But if you stop breathing you stop your life energy. It is important to keep breathing especially when the postures test your physical and emotional limits. One of the main manifestations of proficiency in a series of postures is not merely the ability to perform them well, but actually the ability to breathe deeply and steadily while holding the postures. When you learn to breathe freely while attempting difficult asanas you are also practicing the kind of deep relaxation that will help you in difficult life situations. Sometimes two long deep breathes can avert an escalation of argumentation between friends or partners. With yoga practice taking a breath to pause the train of torment will feel more and more natural over time both on and off the mat.
If you do your practice with the focus solely on the attainment of asanas you will most likely sacrifice the breath for form. Yet the ends do not justify the means in yoga. More to the contrary, the means in and of themselves are the ends. Yoga is about the journey and the process and if there is not space to allow a deep inhalation and exhalation to be your guide in yoga, there might never be space for you to be calm in your life. The goal of life is not merely to make it as quickly as possible to the last breath, but instead to enjoy the whole glorious ride along the way. If you let go of the need to achieve you will discover that you already have all the peace you really need inside yourself, in between the inhalation and exhalation.