The importance of breathing need hardly be stressed. It provides the oxygen for the metabolic processes; literally it supports the fires of life. But breath as “pneuma” is also the spirit or soul. We live in an ocean of air like fish in a body of water. By our breathing we are attuned to our atmosphere. If we inhibit our breathing we isolate ourselves from the medium in which we exist. In all Oriental and mystic philosophies, the breath holds the secret to the highest bliss. That is why breathing is the dominant factor in the practice of Yoga.”
― Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
I had to write a paper answering the question What Is Yoga? as my first assignment for Yoga Teacher Training. We sat around in a circle and read our responses. I guess I set the standard for my TT that night, as I quoted the above poem by David Whyte, along with another by Mary Oliver. My essay was very different from most of the others in the class. They all answered beautifully, but more in the vein of attempting to “define” yoga, while I wrote more about what yoga means to me personally. And that has continued to play out in class. I am the one frustrated by the asana and teaching work; and captivated by the poetry …..the philosophy, the teaching scripts where we get to write themes, the deep conversations about anatomy.
Yes, I said that. Look, I don’t have any plans to go take anatomy classes when this training is over, but it is astounding what a teacher with passion for a subject can give and transmit to students who have even the slightest interest, or perhaps none at all. I surprisingly found myself fascinated by the beauty and depth of the human body, something I have been so out of touch with for so long. I swoon when we talk about heart opening poses and other romantic things, when we discuss faschia and, surprisingly enough, I loved the snippets of film we saw about dissection. Seriously fascinating. There is one woman in the group who just says over and and over “will that be on the test”?, harshing my buzz for sure, but there are different people and styles in the class and part of what we are learning is non-attachment, to people, places, things, and outcomes (like tests).
But it is interesting how every time I have some sort of “breakthrough” moment, it seems to come on a Friday night, in anatomy.
Last Friday was no different. The class was interesting. We talked of muscles and faschia, and the Yin Yoga that I love talks about all of that, so I was entranced. And then MC (Maria Christina, our teacher) brought out the dissection DVD’s. They were not disturbing at all, fascinating really. The man who was offering them, Gil Hedly, often reached right in and would grab and flex or extend an actual muscle; what a way to learn! ( He leads dissections for body workers, rather than doctors, and MC has taken part in several). The thing that got me though, that moved me beyond measure were the lungs. Hedly actually pumped breath into the lungs, showing their action. We could see the lobes opening and closing, the rise and fall of the diaphragm .It was fascinating and so spiritual, and a little hard to explain.
I thought about my disconnection to my body, for so long. Disconnected because I wanted to die, disconnection because I didn’t want to feel so I drank. And then I watched breath moving the dead lungs of a dead human being in and out. And it struck me that breath could transcend death, that it lives on, in all of us, far past the point we are dead and even before we are alive. That we don’t die.
(does it sound like I am on some seriously good drugs? just checking…)
We are reading the Sutras of Patanjali and reading about Karma and re-birth and it makes sense. We read about Prana, the underlying life force that flows through our body on breath … but not really. I could quote Joni Mitchell here, “we are stardust, we are golden”. I could quote this http://www.thethinkingblue.com/eulogyfromphysicist.html I could quote all the stories of rebirth and resurrection and scientific thought that I have negated or championed in the past. There is religion and science and “Woo-Woo” and it ALL make sense to me. Because it’s all just the breath.
The presence of it . The absence of it. The IT of it…”this opening to life we have refused again and again until now”.
I didn’t realize I would come to this 8 weeks ago when I wrote that paper and added that poem. I also didn’t realize I would see that film last night after finishing a LONG-ASS midterm (take home, but still, Jeez!) all week, that kept me working, sweating and swearing every day. The very last question asked us to describe in one sentence each what is the most important thing we have learned in asana, in anatomy and in philosophy. My answer was breath, breath, and breathe.
It is in that breath that we live, the life-force that keeps our organs and bones and muscles and brain cells working and alive in us, in our bodies.
The breath in asana is crucial, we hinge our practice on it, on keeping the Prana flowing as we go deeper and deeper into poses and what they might teach us about our selves and life. Breath drives us deeper into our practice, makes us energetic and worthy, burns us with heat, Tapas in practice
And the breath we take as we study philosophy, that asks us to dig deeper, to not settle for the explainable universe around us but to ask deeper questions of the world and ourselves and our bodies. The breathing in meditation that we do to uncover our true selves, the coming back to the breath that feeds our soul or Purusha. That clears our wrong perception and ignorance, our Avidya. The breath that flows out, changes and returns, changed but still us.
My practice this weekend was intense…backbends and forward fold. Lots of emotion, lots of feelings. But besides a little crying just from the release of it all, I wasn’t thrown off. I wasn’t disturbed by the things I couldn’t do, unlike ever other week, nor proud of the things I could. It was all the same. It was the breath.
I have been holding my breathe for so long. Perhaps too long. But I am breathing now. If nothing else is gained from this adventure, I am breathing now.
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices