At the start of every class, I guide students through a breath awareness exercise. Natural breath. Breathe in; breath out. That kind of thing. Try it a minute.
Feels good, right?
My posture sequences are made to follow the breath so I jumpstart the process. The breath ignites the body. Animates it coherently. If I don’t offer some breath awareness at the get-go, I’m guaranteed a few students with arms waving around completely out of sync with the rhythm of their bodies as we move into asana. It’s like watching animation mishaps. Like seeing Mickey Mouse getting all pompous but his arms are on the opposite side of the screen.
So, we breathe. We take a moment to observe the nature of the breath. Sometimes there’s a hunt for the breath. The other day, a student’s eyes popped open. He asked me, ‘Where the hell did I put it? I mean, where has it been?’ He looked a little frantic. Like maybe he’d left it in the car with the windows up.
‘Breathe,’ I said.
And he did. Hunt successful.
And, like people do, he settled in. Students start to breathe and their bodies move with the breath. Subtly in some places. A bob in the head. A little nod in the knees. The movement is more pronounced in other places, especially as the breath begins to naturally deepen. The ribs expand and contract. The belly rises and falls. Up and down. In and out. Just watching all those bodies puts me at ease. They’re an ocean of waves.
During this time, I cue students to release into the ground. To feel themselves letting go so that when they start to move, they’ll do so from a place of calm. As they begin to build strength, it’ll grow on a foundation of integrity, not rigidity.
I’ve noticed that some students resist initially. They twitch. They fidget. They breathe like someone frustrated with a messy kitchen. Sharp little inhales upon seeing the chaos. Exasperated exhales, like a resignation to the task of cleaning. Resignation that this breathing is just a gate they must pass through before the asana starts.
Dear, dear impatient, breathless students. Your breathing is the heart of the process. (The heart and lungs?) It’s essential. Try not doing it while you read the remainder of this post if you don’t believe me.
Actually, don’t. Please keep breathing. Long, slow exhales. Let’s continue.
I cue the sharp breathers to pay attention to their breath. To ascribe qualities to their observations. Does this breath feel smooth and deep, like an old river flowing? Or does it feel sharp and jagged? Geologically new and unsure of its path? We note it, as a method of letting our body know how closely we’re listening. Then we let the breath move deeper. Eventually, all bodies find their rhythm. Eventually, all bodies know how to breathe themselves. We just just have to get out of their way.
Which is what leads me to this post. We don’t always have to be mindful about the simple act of breathing, but it’s a good idea to acquaint ourselves with the rhythms of the breath. You might find, when you do, that you’re breathing like someone facing imminent attack, someone who believes the call is coming from INSIDE the house. You might find that you’re breathing by lifting your shoulders up to your ears, a recruitment of body parts that should be doing other stuff. Like, not hurting, for example. Like not contributing to your overall stress.
You’ve probably heard lots from your personal trainer people and maybe your huffpo exercise gurus about anaerobic exercise. I think people just like to say it. Anaerobic. So many vowels! So smart. Well.
Anaerobic literally means without breath. And while it’s okay for short periods of exertion—even a highlight of our physiological function that’s saved us from lions and cars that don’t slow down for pedestrians—it isn’t your everyday wear. These days, we mostly use it for high intensity interval training, over durations of 30 seconds to two minutes, with the intention of building strength and endurance.
But you need to breathe. Producing energy without oxygen increases the lactic acid in your body (which might be detrimental to muscle function, over the long-term) and you won’t burn fat or, really, do much of anything positive metabolically when your body is oxygen deprived. You might build up tolerance to withstand fatigue and build some muscle. And that’s a good thing, occasionally.
But, let me ask you, aren’t you already withstanding fatigue? And, those muscles don’t have to be massive to have healthy mass. Anaerobic work has its place. But it’s a short, small place. The place that could use some expansion is aerobic. Filled with breath. So much long breath that you start to relax. Try it. This is where you’re body finds its way to a healthy metabolism, to calm responses, to healing.
Fortunately, our bodies won’t let us go without air. Unfortunately, we do a pretty damn fine job of testing this. We rush and do and push ourselves into constant connection with a world we can’t touch. We forget or don’t know that connecting to the world inside us requires this breath awareness.
In a previous post, I gave you four restorative poses to try during the high holy month of yoga. (Yoga month is a strange concept to me, but I digress.) But in honor of the intention, and if you’re curious, try this little exercise and see how it makes you feel.
Get comfortable. Maybe even come to savasana. Once you’re there, start deepening your inhales and exhales. Inhale to a slow count of four, then exhale to a slow count of five. Let your breath expand until your inhale count reaches 6 or 7. Your exhale might get to 7 or 8. Keep your exhale longer than the inhale, a practice called langhana breathing that naturally calms the nervous system. Feel how your breath simply flows. When the inhale is done, the exhale comes. When the exhale is done, the inhale arrives. Continue through 10 breaths and slowly let your breathing come back to a shorter count of 4-5. When you’re done, spend a moment just letting your breath flow normally. Feel your body breathing itself. Then get yourself up slowly and pat yourself on the back. Nice job. You’ve just cultivated a little love for your breath.