`THE River,’ corrected the Rat.
`And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!’
‘By it and with it and on it and in it,’ said the Rat. `It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we’ve had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements.’
—The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
The moment our breath hits our lungs marks the beginning of our existence as terrestrial beings. And from that moment we are in motion on the current of the river.
We are joined to this current from the moment we emerge from the amnion into the air. And the breath flows through us like a river of air, which we are joined to for all of our life. It is the first thing we ever did and will be the last thing we ever do, to take this breath. It threads through every action of ours, every mood, every event of our lives. It is the one constant when all embodied things change.
And just like a waterman can feel the river’s current, and learn the behavior and tendency of water that he has not yet met, you can learn your breath’s current—its textures and eddies, where it blurbles smoothly along and where it roughs into rapids, and when that happens and what to look for, and where are the rocks underneath, and what the river does over rocks; when to surf and when to steer, when to yield and when to be carried.
Pranayama teaches not simply to breathe, and not simply to manipulate the breath like water with the strokes of an oar, but the relationship between our consciousness and the breath. Yoga is a breathing practice. Yoga is about being alive in the fullest way.
You do all these different pranayams, all these different breath exercises, to learn the character of breath, to experience it intimately, so when you are not on the mat or cushion, you are familiar with it; you know what it is doing: how it affects you and how you affect it.
Air is, after all, a fluid: it flows. Observe your breath as a boatman observes the water. Know how to anticipate, how to create, how to respond. When to resist, and when to yield. Like Ratty and his sweet little boat on The River. Like Huckleberry Finn and Jim on their raft on the Mississippi. Like anyone who senses and knows the moods of water, to know how to observe this river of air.
Every Yoga practice ends with the salutation ‘Namaste,’ which means something like this: we are all boatmen on this same water. We all breathe the air of the same world. It circulates through all our lungs. When we remember this, we realize we are all one.
Namaste! OM Prana Pranaya Namaha!
Photo of the Delaware River outside Trenton, New Jersey, by Jeff Frazier. www.jefffrazier.com
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