A Practice Without Breath is Like a Sandwich Without Bread
I settle into my meditation cushion, set the timer, and take a few deep breaths. The first is always a shock to my system. It’s as though my body has been deprived of air for months. There’s actually a physical pain induced by the outer reaches of my lungs heaving and attempting to expand beyond capacity without tearing anything. Lately, as I encourage these deep breaths, I end up in a state of near panic as it dawns on me that the rest of the day will be (or has been) spent completely forgetting to let energy flow through my body. I observe my breath shorten, quicken, and all but disappear. My mind takes off on various joyrides. And when I come back to the breath, I find that there’s precious little to attend to.
So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out. My spiraling mind, more often than not brimming with concern for something or other, induces my breath to shorten so that I become dizzy and uncomfortable. This makes me think of all the hidden little corners inside of me brimming with distress, unfulfilled desires, and trauma that I allow to fester and flourish by not breathing into them. I “reset” again, aiming to breathe deeply into my sources of tension. But I’m already off somewhere else by the time the outbreath is releasing. And the cycle continues.
So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out.
Once, during an intensive yoga course, I noticed my teacher focused on my belly as I tried to huff and puff my way to a cleansed psyche via kapalabhati, or “skull shining” breath. When we were done, I was informed that I had the process in reverse.
You can breathe backwards? I thought. Evidently, yes! Instead of emitting the air with a quick outbreath, I was shoving the old, toxic air back in with a forceful inbreath. I asked (against all hope) if this was, sort of, okay, and got a gentle indication that this was something I might want to work on. I also learned that, like many, I’m a chest-breather—meaning that I only use a tiny portion of my lung capacity.
I was flummoxed. One of the greatest obstacles I had to mount on my way to a balanced self was breathing? (The very first thing I did when I came into this world?) I felt crushed under the weight of perceived defeat. I wondered how I was still alive and moving relatively well through life, when I should be constantly hungry for the nourishment of a good, full breath. I should be wheezing and panting and raisin-like, shriveled on my journey through this incarnation.
One of the great rewards of intensive yoga courses is that we can put ourselves directly in the path of beautiful teachers who can guide us when we falter, encourage us when we lapse, and remind us of what we habitually forget. Going beyond the help that I received with alignment, meditation techniques, and theory, I was thrilled to have found teachings on a subject I once thought was so unconscious and obvious that I couldn’t imagine needing to be mentored in it. Breathing became my new obsession.
But, after a little while, I started to hate breathing. I resisted doing kapalabhati and activating the bandhas (energy locks), both of which felt like a journey directly into quicksand. Gradually, though, during a period of long travel and daily inspiration, I built my strength, body awareness, and lung capacity—and even began to look forward to pranayama (breathing techniques).
I would start each morning by gazing out the window. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than a view of the world on a new day. (Greeting the day in this way is very easy to do if you’re in the Himalayas, which I was for a time!) I’d consciously take deep breaths and contemplate how lucky I was to be there, right then, to be alive. Then, I’d sit on my mat and try to infuse my practice with a feeling of gratitude, a will to persist, and an attitude of compassion. I’d say, “It’s okay to start slow. Take just a few breaths and do a few locks (bandha activations) with full consciousness, and that’s all. There’s always tomorrow to aim for more.”
I’m not one to always remember to go easy on myself, but the practice became as deeply immersed in self-love and self-acceptance as it did in learning how to fill my body with the expansive flow of energy.
However, over the past couple of years, truth be told, I’ve lapsed. Slowly, imperceptibly even, my practice has often navigated into rote territory—this in direct proportion to time spent earning a living in front of the computer. My busy mind follows me with great skill and precision. And, oddly, the first thing I drop as I step onto the mat is my awareness of breath. Which is like making a sandwich without bread or riding a bicycle without a bicycle. You get my point, right?
True yoga, we know, is not the art of balancing precariously on the cranium while legs splay widely with varying degrees of beauty and grace. Yoga is not the art of feats of flexibility, extreme cleansing practices, or mudra or mantra memorization.
The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence.
Yoga can and does involve these things, of course, and we are each gifted with the beautiful challenge of finding a yogic path that works best for us. But without a firmly rooted connection with our own breath, we can only (at the very best) mimic the actions and passions of life.The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence. And so I ask of myself: slow down, place hands on belly and chest, invite joy and vibrancy in, let tension and holding patterns out.
And just breathe.
**This article was recently published in Yoga International.