Breathing Into Life
By Trish Reyburn
My first yoga lesson in breathing was profound!
It was a lesson in conscious breathing and abiding in the body in present-moment awareness.
But I wasn’t able to dive deeper into the practices of breath control until many years later.
Among the 8 Limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a category of practice labeled Pranayama (just sound it out).
If you were building the yogic tree from the roots up, Pranayama is the fourth limb, or level of development. It is preceded on the tree by Yamas, Niyamas and Asana (physical postures), which will be discussed here another time.
My first memory of an actual Pranayama practice takes place during the Ashtanga Yoga classes I participated in during the late 1990’s. My teacher always added a breathing practice to the very end of class, following Sivasana. Those classes were the most challenging I had attended so far in my yoga experience.
Of course, I was a different person back then, a real novice of yoga. My inner dialogue was brutal and I was always comparing myself to others in the class. And I was angry. There were so many unprocessed emotions that I had stuffed away in my life up until that point.
I didn’t know there was another way.
Once, I remember losing balance in Tree Pose (Vrksasana) and then screaming and raging at myself inside my own mind. That was before I made the rule that if I fall out of a pose, I have to smile!
During the Ashtanga period of my life, I lived for Relaxation Pose (Sivasana). Sivasana made everything else worthwhile.
So, you might imagine how miffed I was when told I had to leave my favorite pose to practice breathing.
I was infuriated on more than one occasion.
For those of you who have practiced Sivasana:, can you imagine coming out of it infuriated? That’s what a dark place I was once in.
“I don’t want to sit up and breathe!
I just want to stay in Sivasana!
Why do we have to practice breathing?
I already know how to breathe!”
Sometimes, I rebelled and stayed in Sivasana.
But more often I begrudgingly made my way back to a seated position to take part in the practice: Ujjayi (the Victorious Breath); Kapalabhati (the Skull-Cleansing Breath) and; Nadi Shodhana (Alternate-Nostril Breath) all helped change my life.
I’ve learned that if I feel a lot of resistance to doing something, it’s most likely what I need to be doing. If my teacher hadn’t insisted on practicing Pranayama exercises every week, I would not likely have done them on my own.
Later, I bought an audio recording of a 40-minute Pranayama practice and committed to doing it every day for a year.
That year changed my life significantly.
My breath naturally became longer and more even and through practice, I was able to increase the time I could retain my breath.
Years later, I can acknowledge the power of a Pranayama practice. There are thousands of ways to use the breath to calm, regulate or stimulate the mind. I look back to those days in Ashtanga class and realize that I was still learning the physical practice of postures in my body.
Pranayama is more subtle than the physical and so calls for more concentration to stay present. Introducing new students to breathwork is great; but it takes a certain amount of dedicated practice to truly access and understand its depths.