Have you ever noticed when you hold your breath it is always with the air in? Have you ever “held your breath” after your out breath? It is possible to do for a few seconds, but not without conscious awareness and focus. Inevitably, the body fights for life. Yet holding your breath in is as easy as … well, breathing. For me, the practice is almost automatic. I especially do it when I am stressed, anxious, or stepping out of my comfort zone—in almost every difficult asana (and life situation), in other words.
In many ways, my Iyengar practice accentuates this problem. Don’t get me wrong – I love Iyengar, and I have had a number of extraordinary Iyengar yoga teachers who have guided me deep into the poses and deep into my body. Who’d have thought that I could improve my headstand by drawing the flesh on the soles of my feet toward my heels, for example? An Iyengar teacher taught me that (though I am still not quite sure how to do it!). Where else might I have learned that it is my legs that do the work in forward bends, not the spine? What other practice might have so successfully invited me to focus so deeply on distinguishing each muscle from the others that I find myself fully inside my body (rather than my head).
But recently, at a party, I got talking to a former Iyengar, now Ashtanga, yoga teacher. Her explanation as to why she shifted was breath. “Sometimes I look at Iyengar students and I get scared—they just don’t breathe!” she said. It got me thinking. A few weeks ago I found myself in an Ashtanga class, and while I did notice the lack of attention to posture detail, I also noted how vigilant the teacher was in guiding our each and every breath.
Horses for courses, perhaps. Ashtanga is dynamic and flowing. Iyengar is thoughtful and considered. But, I wondered, what if I brought breath into my Iyengar practice?
One of the things I played with was holding my breath, just to be conscious of the impact of doing this. I had always used breath to guide my sun salutes, but what about breathing in standing poses that I hold for minutes at a time?
First, it is hard! My mind actually fights the practice. My first urge is to hold the breath along with the pose, and to pull out of the pose at the moment I finally let go of my breath. This was so habitual it was a shock. What if the tiredness I feel when holding asana for a length of time has nothing to do with strength or flexibility, but is driven by my forgetting to breathe?
One way I have been playing with this idea is to hold the breath out. This is, as I have mentioned, extremely hard to do without awareness. If this were a proxy for all else in life, what does it mean? That it is easier to hold tight to something than it is to let go? That we need consciousness and discipline to live with emptiness? Or simply; that our lungs abhor a vacuum?
Regardless, it is insightful practice. When I hold my breath out, my body cries out for air. This small shift then helped me become more conscious of delivering oxygen to the part of the body that most needs it—the part doing the most work in the pose—rather than simply collapsing out of the asana.
What next? If I can let in, as well as let go, what else can I let into my practice, and to my life? Self-care, love, gentleness? From this small step I can see that my yoga practice doesn’t have to be a fight between my mind and body, in fact I can use my mind to draw what I need into my asana, and into my life.
After all, as I read on a sign in a studio recently: Yoga without mindfulness is just an exercise class.