I asked myself this question and found a sad and embarrassing truth!
Last week I introduced ujjayi pranayama (victorious breathing/yogic breath) to my beginner yoga students. I dedicated the whole class to breathing. My theme was to reflect on our breath as we moved around the mat in a slow basic flow, getting more and more familiar with ujjayi pranayama.
To prepare I had done some research, and I must admit this already now, that though I have been a yoga teacher for a while I have not made so much fuss around the importance of having a conscious relationship to the breath. (In beginner’s classes I introduce the natural breath and then later when the students the hang of the “yoga set up”, I introduce them to the yogic breath or ujjayi pranayama.)
But this time I took it a different route. I bought The Breathing Book by Donna Fahri a long time ago but actually never read it. I finally decided to give it a turn and what I discovered was really embarrassing, but it was about time, actually you could say my life depended on it.
Besides the technical parts, what a magnificent construction breathing actually is!
Besides the importance of having a good balance between the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body, which happens when you don’t interfere with your breathing (and is caused by stress or bad breathing patterns). Besides the importance of deep breathing and breathing through your nose and not the more shallow breath through your mouth (which has tremendous effect on the nervous system, the metabolism and energy levels). Yeah, besides all of that, which any yoga teacher probably can relate to and speak about even in their sleep, there was this other thing that I never ever would have thought of, and it completely punched the air out of my self-image.
In her book Donna Fahri refers to how many people, especially women that “in order to look good feel bad.”
She starts out with these statements:
“We live in a time when there is an extreme obsession with looking trim, fit, and most important young.” /…/ “We are being indoctrinated at a young age. In a survey of middleclass schoolgirls in San Francisco 81% of ten- year olds were already dieters. By the time girls leave high school over 75% feel extreme dissatisfaction with their weight and shape of their bodies, although a very few of them actually are overweight. We are willing to walk around in a state of semi-asphyxiation, holding our bellies in with belts and zippers, and clothes two-sizes too small, in order to cast the illusion of being youthful and fit.”
I know this is not world breaking news! We are smart, we have eyes to see with but when I read this, the truth finds a way right into my understanding and exposes a behavior that is so old that I have been totally unable to divide it from my true self.
I am soon to be 47 years old and ever since I was a in my early teenage I have been holding my breath in order to look more, as I hoped, thin. I have been holding my belly, when sitting, when walking when talking, when working, when reading, when writing, when eating, when having sex, and God forbid, when doing yoga (and not only when doing uddiyana bandha). I have been holding my belly in for about 33 years, and with that holding my breath for just as long!
I have never thought of it as something that could actually hurt me, and when thinking about it, I just (as Fahri refers to in her book as many other people think) thought that I was toning my muscles and making them strong by doing so.
But if that is correct, I should have an eight-pack by now, but my belly is still soft as a cushion.
Fahri also writes “The simple fact is that holding the abdominal muscles in a constant state of contraction causes them to weaken. In order for any muscle to function effectively it has to completely relax between contractions.” /…/ “In free breathing they alternately swell and retract, allowing fresh nutrients to circulate through the muscles, and toxic waste products to flush out. This not only keeps the abdominal muscles strong, it helps the body to assimilate and eliminate both functions that aid weight loss.”
So when stepping into my classes last week, I decided to be translucent about the way I have been holding my breath for over three decades in order to look slimmer. I used myself as an example of how disturbed something can get when you are not true to your self, and asked them to share if they could recognize what I was talking about. More than one was nodding.
And so the whole theme was built around having a conscious relationship to breathing and allowing the breath to move free, not putting on any “self- imposed psychic girdle” as Fahris expressed it so accurately.
For a week now I try to breathe without holding my belly in. After so many years of doing the opposite, it’s not coming easy. I have to remind myself all the time, because if I don’t, I hold my breath even when I vacuum my house, even when no one is home.
Something is slowly changing in my body and in my mind.
I felt fine before this change. I love my life, being in my body, being alive, but after such a long time and finally letting go of this tightness in my belly, the effects I have felt are not only physical, but letting go of the psychic girdle I have been putting on for so long, I have been able to free some energy on a level that I could not have imagined.
Donna Fahri suggests seven things to check out when getting dressed. The test is “if you can’t run, dance or breath in it don’t wear it.” (I will also add—don’t wear it if it stops you from crying or laughing freely!)
1. Clothes that pinch the waist
2. Clothes that are too small
3. Belts that are too tight
4. Neck ties that are too tight
5. High heels that crunch or squeeze
6. Bras—if it leaves red marks it’s too tight
7. Girdles and corsets—no thank you
And Finally I would like to put one more thing on that list:
8. Avoid anything where you find yourself holding in your belly
I am grateful that Fahri wrote this book. It’s like I get a new life because of it. And, yeah my belly is soft as a cushion but so what? It is finally free from decades of being trapped in a girdle of physical and psychic distortions!
PS: I should really take my own classes more often.
I am a fulltime local yoga teacher in Sweden, where I teach alignemen-based and heart-centred Hatha yoga and also Yin yoga. The motivation comes from a deep whish to increase happiness in the world. I am passionate about sharing yoga with people and love to see when the yogapractice makes students feel more happiness, health and connection with themself.
Editor Tanya L. Markul