Learning to Breathe






On Mother’s Day, I spent the morning at a workshop about the
breath and spine taught by my mentor, Leslie Kaminoff. I thought it a fitting
tribute to the feminine energy to hear about removing obstacles to our foundational
balance, which is a very yin (feminine) journey; not one of pushing or
over-striving, but of gentleness, introspection, and nurturing.  This is something my Type A side
resisted for years.

 

When I first began studying with Leslie at the Breathing
Project in New York City, I wasn’t interested in a deeper practice of pranayama. I just wanted to know what was the optimal way to breathe in yoga.
Ujjayi? No Ujjayi? From the belly? With the bandhas? Which bandhas? Through the
nose, the mouth, belly or chest? And how?

 

Like a master instructor would, he spent the next few months
handing my questions right back to me without answering them definitively.  In fact, he actively tried to get me to
experience my own breath in all its different forms, and let it be my ultimate
teacher.  It was maddening.

 

However, once I learned to quiet my mind and stop
controlling my breath, and allowed it to speak to me instead of always the other way around, I had my answer:
There is no one perfect way to breathe in yoga.  In fact, there are innumerable ways to approach the breath. We
can stop and start it, hold or release it, and send it where we want it to go.
We can also do nothing at all, and simply let ourselves breathe.

 

When yogis don’t really understand pranayama, we tend to
default to doing one breath–usually Ujjayi– in all poses. But a
one-breath-fits-all approach is lacking. Deciding which breathing method you
need comes down to this: “What do I want from this moment, and how can the
breath support me to achieve it?” So, before the breath, even, we cultivate an
inner attention. Svadhaya, or a process
of inner inquiry must occur. Otherwise, it’s solely a respiration practice,
which gives benefits, but is not the all-levels union of yoga.

 

From there, we learn to either do something (tapas) or surrender to what is (ishvara pranidhana), and in making the
conscious choice, reflected in the quality of the breath, we actually can
create more inner freedom instead of less.

 

Leslie always speaks of yoga as a process by which we remove
obstacles to our true nature, like Patanjali’s parable of the farmer who must
only open a dam to let the water flow and nourish his fields. We can do this
every time we seek out a tight muscle and stretch it, or shift a belief that
doesn’t serve our higher purpose to one that does. And you know what? I never
thought I’d say it, but the art of pranayama has become quite interesting to
me.

 

Breathing has become one way I practice the deep soul
relaxation and loving kindness inherent in ahimsa
(nonharming)–in this case, not causing myself injury. My pranayama protects me
from dumping more anxiety, more “go-go-go,” more needing to know, more, well…more onto my plate. It’s a moving
meditation where I can soften, listen intently, and just be taught for a while
instead of always needing to be the teacher.

 

I’m curious–what has your breath had to teach you lately?

 

Core Pose: Tadasana (or Tadasana Samasthithi) with Breath of
Freedom

 

I pay homage to Leslie Kaminoff by sharing one of his
techniques that provides another perspective on high chest breathing. We’re
often told in yoga that breathing into the upper chest causes anxiety. This is
not necessarily true. Breathing short, fast, and into a limited portion of the
lungs? Maybe so. But accessing the upper lobes of the lungs can actually bring
you more space and relaxation, as the muscles of the neck and shoulders release
from the inside out.

 

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with feet sitting bone-distance
apart. Ground your feet and lift long through the crown of the head.  Arms can lift and lower gently with the
breath or remain at your sides.

 

Imagine you have two nostrils at the center of your
shoulders just behind the center of each collarbone, and if you pressed down,
you could contact the top of your lungs.  As you inhale and exhale, let the air flow through these
areas, filling the lungs at their highest point and releasing it again through
the shoulders.

 

Notice how this naturally causes your lower abdominals to
lift and support the spine. For contrast, try taking a big belly-expanding
breath and push out your navel. You’ll likely experience a drop of spinal
support and ability to breathe.

 

Maintain the first pranayama and enjoy for 1 minute. Then
begin your practice with a more spacious chest and heart center.  

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