You probably hear it a MILLION times in yoga. Or you see teachers (like me) walking around with shirts saying “breath.” Well, no shit. We all breathe. All the time, in fact. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. So what’s the big deal with this breath thing? Why do so many people pay to contort themselves into funny positions and have someone remind them to breath for an sixty to ninety minutes at a time?
Because it’s the quality that counts.
Ancient yogis believed that each person came into the world assigned a certain number of breaths and then they’d die. So practicing pranayama (breath control) and learning to deepen and slow your breaths was important to lengthen your life.
I don’t know if I believe that. But think about the attention and intention you’d give to each breath if that were true. Think about the gratitude. Generally, we take our breaths for granted. They come and they go and we assume it’s just going to happen like the sun rising and setting. But what if we allowed each breath to truly fill us up.
Take a moment to feel that in your body. To feel wonder, awe at the miracle that is your life and your ability to breathe. To feel the expansion of your chest or your belly.
Now pause at the top of the inhale and hold your breath.
Viktor Frankl says: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Feel the possibility of new opportunities and beginnings. When we stop breathing, even if only for a moment, our minds go still. There is a small death that happens in that pause – the death of our ego. We are drawn into a hyper alert state, which, without consciousness, can lead to fear.
So now let that breath go, but slowly and steadily. Don’t rush the experience. Getting empty is just as important as getting full. If we didn’t empty ourselves we would have no room for anything new. The next breath would be unable to come. There’d be no room for the next opportunity for growth, the next job, the next relationship, the next stage of unfolding in a tried-and-true relationship…
So often we deeply inhale, taking it all in and luxuriating in that privilege; and then we push the exhale out with no thought. That’s kind of greedy, huh? We want to take it all in, but not let go of anything. Or we don’t think about giving back – inspiring others with our breath. Or we don’t honor the things that were with us for a little while before we let them go, thus cheating ourselves out of closure and gratitude.
Take a couple moments now to breathe in and out, deeply, evenly and with total concentration. Feel the breath move your body. How do you feel? Probably calmer. Probably more present. Maybe your mind is racing a little less. In this moment, what do you need? Love? Peace? Clarity? Balance? They are out there for you. Just breath them in. And what do you need to let go of? Anger? Unease? Hurt? Stress? Limiting Beliefs? Some extra Love you wouldn’t mind sharing? Just let them go – with honor for the purpose they served and the lessons they taught and in appreciation of all new things yet to come.
Now pick up the pace of your breath. Make them shorter. Like a pant. Did your eyes just tighten up? Mine did. If you kept that up for a while, that tension would move into other parts of your body. Your mind would go back into that hyper alert state, but this time with less space between stimulus and response – with less consciousness. You would be in fight or flight mode – waiting for some threat to come at you.
Many of us spend a lot of our days with that constricted breath. We are often on edge, uncertain, waiting for the other shoe to drop – even f we didn’t know there was another shoe. Or that it was up high. Or that it might come down. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and breath are all linked. When we change our breath it affects all the other areas, too. So what is the quality of your breath? And how is that affecting the rest of your life?
This is why we go to classes to practice breathing. Because our lives will always contain good shit and some good shit will always turn to bullshit. It is our responsibility and our privilege to practice taking it all in and letting it all go with compassion, mindfulness and an attention to the quality of our life and our interactions. If in between each breath is a small death – what will be your legacy?