Sometimes, all you can do is breathe.
My favorite yoga lessons consistently take place off the mat. My teacher, Johnna Smith, says that our yoga truly begins when we leave our mats, and I can tell you that she is absolutely correct. Moving in asana, or poses, is only one small part of the science of yoga. Breathing is the most important part of yoga. I frequently hear teachers say that if you’re no longer in control of the breath then you’re not doing yoga anymore, even if your body is technically holding a pose. If you can control the breath, they say, you can control the mind. Imagine the possibilities for our lives if we could learn to control the mind! There are dedicated yogis, philosophers, teachers, spiritual guides, pastors, and monks around the world who spend all day every day working towards this mastery through meditation, reading, and manipulating the breath. The rest of us, who must hold jobs and raise children and pay mortgages and feed our cats, we do the best we can with the time we make. I started to say the time we have, but that’s not entirely the case. We must make time to learn these lessons. They rarely happen by accident.
The breath can carry us through all sorts of reactions to what happens around and to us. It is no coincidence that small children are told by their kindergarten teachers to “take a deep breath and count to ten” before lashing out when they’re angry. Practically speaking, it’s about finding a place in between the catalyst and our reactions where we can create ease for ourselves and those around us. Doesn’t that sound like a nice place to live? Connecting with the breathe really does something inside of our minds. It can energize, calm, give focus, ground us, and establish a solid foundation for our entire day. There are countless breathing exercises in yoga. The act of intentionally controlling the breath is called pranayama, and there are specific techniques that can be prescribed to deal with different needs. There is pranayama for anxiety, for listlessness, for fatigue, for rest, for energy. Yogis activate the breath and alternately inhale and exhale to varying ratios in order to bring a concentrated dose of life force into the body. Prana, in fact, means “vital life” or “life force” in Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga. It is this life force that carries us through asana on the mat and through everything else when we’re off.
Genesis 2:7 says that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being. It is the breath of God that creates us, and breath sustains us. Job says in chapter 33 that The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. I read stories in the news of people surviving days and weeks without food or water, stranded in deserts or ditches living on drops of rain and candy bars. We can live without food and water for a good while, but try to go days or weeks without breathing. It’s absurd, isn’t it? Our brains die after just 5 minutes without breath. When you think of it in those terms, it’s remarkable how critically our bodies rely on the breath. It’s also remarkable how much we take each breath for granted most often only generating it subconsciously, without a single thought.
Pranayama requires focusing thought on the breath for extended periods of time. Sometimes just 20 minutes of sitting with your breath can turn your entire day on its head. I know this because I have experienced it. I have sat through guided breathing exercises and felt how powerful they are. But if pranayama is part of yoga, and yoga truly begins off the mat, then so must the benefits of knowing and commanding the breathe.
It means when you’re cut off in traffic, you breathe. It means when your toddler breaks your favorite dish, you breathe. It means when the proverbial you-know-what has hit the fan, you breathe. It means when all the bills are due but there is not enough money, you breathe. It means when your heart is breaking, you breathe. Not because the breath always brings the answer, but because it brings life. Remember, controlling the breath leads to controlling the mind. Even if you haven’t gotten the hang of that last part, breathing will calm your mind. Then, you can give that driver the benefit of the doubt- maybe he’s trying to get to a sick wife or child. You can hug your little one and give him a kiss, rather than yelling at him over the dish. You can clean the fan. You can find calm, rather than panic, in the face of financial discomfort. You can offer your broken heart a place to grieve, and then find peace.
So start today. Take a few minutes to sit someplace quiet and alone, and breathe. I go to the floor of my closet sometimes. Go where you can focus and just breathe. Your mind will wander. It’s okay. When you see it wander, bring it compassionately (that means cut yourself some slack, Type A) back to the breath and let that breath bring sustaining, centering, calming, rejuvenating life back to your world.
Grace, Peace, and Namaste