In Yoga Thoughts

take-a-deep-breathI very rarely practice yoga in front of my children. Firstly, I’m up hours before they are and have usually finished my practice before they even come down for breakfast. Secondly, I’m simply not someone who has ever enjoyed an audience (just ask my piano teacher who had to calm me from the brink of panic before every single recital of my life). Lastly, because I teach from my house, I’m lucky enough to have a studio available to me just footsteps from my back door, so I almost never unroll my mat in the house. Yoga, therefore, is mostly a solitary activity for me.

Recently, however, I shared a hotel room with my daughter. After a grueling car ride the night before, I absolutely needed to work out some kinks so I unrolled my mat as far from her bed as I could get. I wound up in that little entryway space that seems to be part of every hotel room in the world. As I was rolling my mat back up an hour later, she commented, “You have really good breath control. Even when you’re doing something hard, you sound the same. I bet that would be helpful for a lot of stuff, like when I’m on the erg.” (For those of you who are not crew moms, my daughters tell me that an “erg” is a torture device disguised as a rowing machine.)

I exhibited a great deal of self-control in my response and simply said, “Yup. My breath is really helpful.” (Time and again my husband have learned the hard way that much more than this results in glazed-over or rolling eyes.) For you, my friends, I will expand on that response here.

Yes, my breath is helpful. It sets the pace for my practice. It’s like a metronome that keeps me from speeding along when I’m feeling stressed or busy or hyper. It also keeps me from plodding along when I’m tired or down in the dumps. When everything is going well, my breath feels like the heartbeat of my practice.

Yes, as my daughter noticed, my breath is especially helpful when I’m doing something hard. I have a teacher who opens every class describing the way the breath keeps us safe. If we breathe into a stretch that is hard for us, we literally cannot hurt ourselves. The converse is also true. If we move into that same posture while holding our breaths, our risk of pulling or tearing something goes up exponentially. For more dynamic movements such as lifting into an inversion or a balance, the breath is just as critical. It keeps our movements smooth and mindful, making it much less likely that we will topple over. When moving into postures that are scary, there is no better time to focus on your breath. It is something familiar and grounding to support us as we move into unfamiliar or frightening territory.

But the breath is so much more than helpful. It is the gateway from the outer gifts of yoga (the strength, the flexibility, the health) to the inner gifts. When we focus on our breath even for just a few moments, our inner landscape automatically changes. The pace of the thoughts zinging around in our head slows. The heartbeat evens out. The jagged edges of our emotions start to smooth. When we draw our attention back to our breath over and over for an hour or more, we begin to feel quite settled in this changed inner landscape. Therefore, when things start to get out of whack – in other words, when we feel stressed or rushed or upset – we notice. We notice and we instinctively take a deep, calming, settling breath and we shift back into a more balanced way of being.

Imagine if, without even a thought, you habitually turned to a transformative tool like this in the challenging moments that pepper every day. After a near-miss on the highway. After you’ve messed something up on a project for school. While your boss is giving you some “constructive criticism” in front of your colleagues. While the person in front of you at the deli is loudly expressing a political view that you find offensive. Just before you open your big mouth to yell at your child or puppy or neighbor. Your experience of life would be different, wouldn’t it?

Practicing yoga is a great way to practice working with your breath. But you don’t even have to unroll a mat. You can sit still and focus on your breath. Set a timer for 5 minutes to begin with. Close your eyes and feel your breath. You can count. You can silently label inhalations and exhalations. You can simply engross yourself in the sensations of breathing – the cool, dryness of an inhale and the warm, moistness of an exhale. When you notice that your mind has wandered off to a thought or daydream, without judgment (that’s important), simply return your awareness to your breath. After just a few days, I suspect you will start to notice that you’re using your breath to give you a sense of peace and stability as you dash around your life.

We are headed into a month filled with hustle and bustle, parties, long to-do lists to check (and check again), and family gatherings with loved ones from near and far. There is no better time to spend a little time with your breath. Remember, changing your inner landscape can be as simple as focusing on your breath for just a few moments. That altered landscape can make this month – even the moments that are hard for you – a month to remember.

Inhale … Exhale … Repeat.
Amy

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