Breathing as a spiritual practice seems rather obvious, trite, or redundant—the functional act of breathing, after all, is a necessity to keeping our bodies alive.
Nonetheless, there are always those sources that remind us to “keep breathing.” Everywhere from songs, to commercials, to co-workers, to family members, it seems that everyone’s generic answer for stressful times is to ‘just breathe.’ Personal trainers tell us to “remember to breathe” as they watch over us doing our painful 60th crunch. It seems so obvious a statement that any one of us, when presented with this cliche phrase, is likely to answer with an irritated “Well, duh! Of course I know that I need to breathe! How else could I be alive?”
How else indeed.
The power of breathing lies in its ability to transform situations. Here’s a scene for you: Satori Yoga Studio, San Francisco, California, 5:15 p.m., Tuesday evening. A room full of people in the Financial District, most of us just getting off work from our 9-to-5 jobs, coming together in one room on our colored mats. Alexandra Bradshaw stands in front of us. “Welcome to Mellow Flow,” she says and proceeds to lead us through a series of shoulder shrugs and other movements designed to loosen us all up. Then, she has us sit on our mats, cross legged. “Breathe in,” she says. We do, and then breathe out, as prompted. Slowly and methodically, Ms. St. Bradshaw leads us through a series of breathing exercises, preparing us for our yoga class. She instructs us to fill ourselves with breath, to hold the breath briefly, and then to let it all go.
The irony of this is that most of us don’t take enough time in the day to breathe effectively and fully. We breathe only to continue to exist on the cellular level; that is, very often, we breathe unconsciously. Many of us in our day-to-day lives don’t seem to realize the significant importance that breathing can make in our lives. Attention to breath is enough to help us change our lives. I can attest to this.
Like most Americans, I once, too, a hard time with the deeper, more conceptual breathing. My situation was similar to that of many young people, busy working, commuting, studying and leading life at an all-around frantic pace. My life moved at a pace too frenzied for me to be present in anything that I did. Whatever I undertook, there was always something else behind my eyes; my mind always moved on to the next thing on my to-do list. My breath was always accelerated, since I was constantly on the go. My personality naturally tends to be on the high-strung side, so I have a hard time just letting go and taking deep breaths. That is, until I discovered yogic breathing.
Yogic breathing, or deep breathing (I use these terms interchangeably – the deep quality of the breath in yoga or meditation is the full with the same relaxing, conscious potential) literally changed my life and how I relate to my body. All it takes is to sit down, breathe deeply and steadily and feel the stillness around you. But before I had even tried this very simple task, I had no idea that my body, the stress I felt, and my breathing were all connected. Then, one day, someone told me, “Smoking is a breathing ritual.” I didn’t know what this meant until I stopped smoking. What I started to realize was that the reason smokers smoke is, often times, because they need a reason to be still and take deep breaths, even if the breaths are of a poisonous nature. Since stopping smoking, I’ve been able to control my anxiety level simply through breathing alone, something I once thought was only possible through the harmful use of nicotine.
Ever since I discovered deep breathing, I’ve discovered just how much every moment can be changed based on my breathing. Taking deep, satisfying breaths can make the wonderful moments of a massage just that much deeper and more juicy. The same goes for a deep stretch. “Just breathe into it,” says my yoga instructor, and as I go deeper into the stretch, challenging my own flexibility, breathing helps me get to the places inside of my own body that I never though I could access. Aaaahhh, say my hamstrings. The breathing feels exquisite. It took me a long time to know that breathing could contain such power. Now, when faced with a difficult or stressful situation, all I do is breathe. Simply breathe. The clam, slowness of the breath takes me to a deeper place within myself, a place of control over my fear, my emotions, my reality. All I have to do is remember to breathe.