Many of us feel overwhelmed in our busy lives. We yearn for quiet, for stillness and for the space to reflect. Breathing practices can be very practical and very sneaky, as they can be done anywhere and for any amount of time. We train in class and then, with practice, many techniques can become so subtle and potent that no one will know when you are doing them. It’s no one’s business that you have cultivated a technique to cool down when someone is aggravating you, or to get yourself inspired in circumstances that feel dull.
In time, pranayama practice becomes more about breath awareness than breath control. The body breathes itself. Whether or not you think about it, whether or not you choose to, the body will go on breathing. It is autonomic, it happens below the register of our awareness. When we engage and actively manipulate the breath, we become agentic, directing the breath, demanding of it, modulating our approach in order to create a specific effect in ourselves.
Alternatively, when we instead choose to witness, we practice letting go of control. We allow life to be as it is right here. We yield to the dance of conscious, unconscious and subconscious- the interplay between that which we know and that which is unknowable.
Breathing is dialogic. We breathe with every other living being. When we inhale, we internalize the out breath of the trees, the star mosses and the lilacs. When we exhale, we feed the forests, the juniper and the linden tree. Life is deeply collaborative. We fit together, we belong to the universe, we are embedded in the interconnected web of life. We belong to life. We belong to each other. We can use the sound of the breath like a bridge between what is perceived as inside and what is perceived as outside. This allows us to organize ourselves formally, to embody the notion that we, like the rest of the universe, are designed, and that we fit. It gives us the experience of awe. We consider these experiences to be mystical, but what is mystical is also incredibly mundane.
Breath work is extremely pragmatic. Breath is one of the only constants in life. It happens without effort, yet can be made conscious and manipulated. It is also an opportunity for self-care. Every breath made conscious lands us with increasing attention and vivacity in the here and now, where presence portends potential.
Headshot: Alex Kikis, courtesy of The Studio.
Illustration: Nevine Michaan, Katonah Yoga®, 2017 © Katonah Yoga Center, Inc., www.katonahyoga.com, Illustrator Susan Fierro.