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.
*This article was co-written by Ruth Lera, of Root Awakenings, and myself, and published on elephant journal. It was so much fun to collaborate on this piece, and to work with Ruth! We recently met through our various common writing activities, and have discovered we have much in common – this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship! Thank you, Ruth, for suggesting we work together!
Energy work such as Reiki, Healing Touch or Cranio-Sacral isn’t something that needs to stay on the massage table.
Working with energy and using it for healing can easily become an everyday activity if we just let it.
All that this opportunity to bring energy healing tricks into our daily lives asks of us is to open our hearts and minds to see new ways to relate to ourselves and the world around us.
Below are stories from two professional energy workers and elephant journal writers about how they came to be involved in energy healing, the shift in perspective it has brought to their lives, and some suggestions for how anyone can incorporate this kind of healing into their daily lives.
I was 20 years old when I had my first experience with any type of energy healing work. I was heading out for a month-long kayaking trip in Alaska and I had this throbbing pain in my wrists that I wanted gone before I left. So I went to see a Cranio-Sacral practitioner I had heard great things about and in three sessions the pain was gone.
I never thought I would do anything like that.
At 28 years old, I went to see a popular local Osteopath who energetically separated me from my parents and told me that life was easy—which had never even crossed my mind before.
This experience brought an incredible amount of bliss into my life.
But I never thought I would do anything like that.
And then about four years ago all of my friends starting taking these healing touch courses and raving about how much they were learning, so I followed along and signed up for Healing Touch level 1. My mind was blown.
Within hours I was feeling energy and healing people by manipulating energy. I thought that this was the most amazing investment of my life.
I saw that it was like investing in a first aid kit but in my hands. Suddenly, I could help with headaches and stress and tummy pains and all the bumps and scrapes that my family and friends are always having.
I still didn’t think this would become my career but it has and this is great. But what is more interesting to me is how we can bring this type of energy awareness into our daily lives.
Here are five things that I do on a regular basis:
1. Increase my personal vibration.
I draw energy from the center of the earth through my body. This visualization generates a kind of tingling or humming sensation in the body which in turn helps decrease stress and increase health in all situations.
2. I become aware of how other people’s energy fields are affecting me.
I notice if I suddenly feel anxious when I’m around a certain person or suddenly feel like I need to get away from a person. I don’t judge that other person. I just stay aware about how I am being energetically affected.
3. I place my hands on someone who is stressed or sad and raise my energy.
This is great for spouses, kids and close loved ones. It’s a practical way we can help them when they are down.
4. Send love and light wherever it seems needed.
This is a great tool when we see pain and suffering and feel helpless. We can imagine the person or situation surrounded in light while simultaneously paying attention to our personal vibration and giving it a little boost.
Will it cure everything? Probably not (if it does please let me know!) but it is something.
It really is something.
5. Being playful and experimental.
This morning I went for a walk in the woods. While walking I brought attention to my energy field, making it bigger and smaller while I walked (it felt amazing when it was big, intertwined with the entire forest).
Was I trying to get a certain result? Nope. I was just having an experience.
Life is an experience, not a cognitive construct. That is why energy awareness can be a daily practice, a daily, experiential practice.
I love what Ruth wrote about being told that life is easy. This has also been a profound realization for me, as someone who tends to overthink and overcomplicate things.
I came to energy healing by being introduced to Reiki twice, almost my chance. The first time, a friend pointed the way, saying, “I didn’t get much out of this, but it seems like your kind of thing.” It was! The practitioner told me almost on sight that my energy field was depleted.
I knew I felt like I had absolutely nothing left to give, but was amazed by her recognition of this.
The second time was during my travels in Southeast Asia, when a friend of mine suggested I get a Reiki treatment from a local healer. I felt soothed by her gentle touch, but was astounded when I started to have great trouble breathing and felt like I was going to have a panic attack.
I knew immediately there was something going on here.
When we talked afterward, one of the things I was told was that I was someone for whom life seems complicated, but that this was only my perspective; life does not have to be experienced that way.
I was hooked, and spent the next several months learning and practicing Reiki, along with several other healing modalities. Learning to be in the world with a sense of oneness and not solely through the filter of my ever-active mind, and being able to work with others to bring about healing and a sense of balance has been an enormously rewarding path.
We might over-dramatize what “healing” means, and reserve blocks of time to see therapists and the like, to “work on healing.” I believe that healing is, at a basic level, a commitment to being fully alive in the world, and this is an ongoing, daily practice of awakening to our energy. As Ruth suggests above, there are things we can do everyday to remain vibrant and strong in the present moment, so that we can also be a light for others.
Here are five things I enjoy doing to work with energy:
1. Ground myself.
Be a tree! Stand with your feet planted on the ground, and feel your legs firmly rooted to the ground, and the Earth’s energy filtering up through the body.
2. Protect myself.
There is a lot of “noise” out there, and it’s hard to have a clear mind and heart when there’s so much external traffic running through us. We can visualize a protective shield of sparkly white light around us, so that we can stay balanced throughout the day.
This is self-explanatory. Breath is life, and pausing during the day to allow long, deep breaths to run up and down the energy channels of the body is rejuvenating and essential.
4. Practice “Give and Take” meditation.
Here, we visualize someone in need, and breathe in their suffering, and and breathe out love, compassion and light to them. It can take as little as a few seconds, and make a huge difference.
We instinctively know that being in nature is healing. For me, being barefoot and taking long walks is the best way to get out of my head and find my natural rhythm with the world around me.
A big sigh, tall breath,
Breathing out: the smallest part
Want to be free now.