We breath, on average, about sixteen breaths a minute. Even when we are still, we are in motion - the lungs fill with the air, the intercostal muscles stretch, the diaphragm moves and life force flows through us, oxygenating every cell in our body with vitality. Yet we often see yoga postures (known as asana) as quite static - a locking in of alignment, a show of muscular strength and flexibility, a stacking of joints, a lubrication of fascia. Without breath, we simply cannot be doing true yoga - an alignment or union of body, mind and breath.
It took me years of asana practice to understand how important the breath is in a posture. There was a tendency to hold the breath in more physically exerting shapes like natarajasana, where one pulls the back leg up whilst stretching forward, balancing on one leg - a beautiful backbend of perfect poise, strength and flexibility. Yoga was very much an outward show - the pose should look a particular way. I could never quite explain those extraordinary classes where I would return to the world with a feeling of peace, balance and grace, but that feeling kept me going. It wasn't til years of practice that I began to fully appreciate the necessity of mindful attention to the breath.
Without the breath, there is no grace, no tapping into the subtle energy of Shiva's dance. The mind body connection is not truly made until we intuit or even fully feel the subtle shifts of cells, blood, fascia, bone. True yoga (as opposed to sports choreography) becomes about the interrelationship between our physical body and our thoughts, the energetic interplay between them. It is a cellular, embodied knowing. In a truly embodied state, I can feel the shift of blood within me, shifts in my fascia, even a moments of ovulation deep within, beneath the skin and clothes that bind me. The more we tap into this inner body - something we're not taught to pay attention to a a world focussed on the exterior - the more we begin to work gently with ourselves, understanding and leaning into the effects of the world upon us, and us on the world.
A whole practice focussed on the landing of the breath around the heart, for example, can be a powerful tool for healing. Not only can I begin to be aware of the effects of the day on my breath, but the feeling upon my pericardeum and the heart itself, and then even further inwards to my yogic heart, the one that empathizes, that extends compassion.
For me, this mind, body and breath connection helps my asthma immeasurably. One of my earliest memories is Mum giving me an awful strawberry flavoured medicine for bronchitis, and it has plagued my life every since. The more I do yoga, the better I breath - both through mindful awareness of my body (I'm more tuned in to the relationship of my body with the external environment, noticing, for example, how what I eat can affect inflammation in the lungs, or how stressful situations might cause shortness of breath through shallow breathing.
The breath in yoga also helps me access places in my body that need to be stretched and toned to allow for my breath to flow freely. One of my favourites for this is hare pose.
Hare Pose (Shashkangasana)
Sasangasana is beautiful for lengthening the spine, stretching out back and shoulders. As it's a forward fold, it's also deeply calming for me. It's a wonderful pose if you study a lot, slouched over a computer, and it's good for the immune and endocrine systems. I identify with the hare as my spirit animal and so I have even more reasons to love this shape. It's affect on my breathing is also noticeable because it helps ease the tight muscles in my spine that can be really painful due to my breath being tight and strained - or in reverse, a tight and strained breath causing pain along my spine.
Paying attention to the breath in hare (or rabbit) pose allows me to work into those tiny nooks and crannies along the entire length of the spine.
What I find extraordinary about this pose is that I'm able to tap into that sensation of breathing along my spine. The spinal cord is the main channel of life force or prana in the body, and as the breath is directed along it, we activate nerves in a very specific, attention way. The more I activate these nerves and stretch and extend my spine, the more comfort I find in my breathing, as my back muscles are allowed to release. It really helps tone and release the tight muscles along the back of my chest. Not suprisingly, in TCM rabbit pose also activates the lung and large intestine meridian.
The trick is to draw the belly in toward the spine and at the same time, breath into the space between your shoulder blades. I imagine my heart moving toward the back of my chest. It's really easy to see the difference between breathing into this space, imagining the heart floating upward to kiss the spine, a meeting of heart/lung space with the spinal column, and simply bending into a forward fold mindlessly. As soon as I let my attention drift, the spine feels different. I can imagine all those spaces between my vertebrae that were previously somehow rusty and clunky, tight and strained.
By breathing into my heart space, and breathing along my spine, the magic starts to happen - mind, body and breath connect, and I begin to feel a little easier, and create the space to truly be.
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