When people ask me what I ‘do’ or what ‘kind’ of yoga I teach, I often tell them that I simply teach people how to breathe.
I help restore the natural, calming breath within them. I then teach people to build asana (the physical poses) from the breath, and how to move, create, release, expand and heal with the breath. The breath is the priority, foundation, core and teacher of the practice. It is a companion and one that is invited rather than commanded.
The quality of the breath reflects the quality of our experience in body and mind: compressed, imbalanced, shallow, or expansive, rhythmic and nourishing. The breath calms the movement of the mind and opens and soothes the body.
The breath anchors us in presence, as it cannot wander to the past or future like the incessantly distracted mind. I teach that yoga is the art of breathing with movement, but no matter what shape the body takes, breath comes first.
I have taught the important attributes of the breath for years.
I have gone into deep explanation of the physiological, philosophical and psychological inner workings and benefits of the breath. Aside from the many devoted ‘breathers,’ the power of the breath doesn’t always seem to captivate all audiences.
I see students moving in a hurry, forgetting or abandoning the breath to get to the next pose or into what I call, ‘fancy’ poses and ‘moch-10-vinyasa.’ I struggle with classes that are packed with people doing physical poses, but not doing yoga.
Why can’t yoga breathing be as hot a topic as sheer yoga pants? I feel that there must be a different way to inspire people to remain with the breath. So, here is my humble and spiritually romantic attempt:
Where does the breath come from, I ask? Whether on a path of spirit or science, or somewhere between, the exact origin of the breath is unknown and I find that worthy of curious contemplation. I see and feel the breath like this: It rises from an inner celestial abyss, like an ocean tide bringing the gift of life to the shoreline of Self.
How does the breath know?
Its intelligence sustains us without the mind telling it to as if it operates from a magic will all its own. Its character is like a delicate, golden thread, its purpose to weave aliveness and the grace of the divine through our precious seconds, minutes, years—our lifetime.
The breath is sourced from the greatest mystery, the begging of creation, the supreme and exalted, and it is has claimed sanctuary within the temple of our body. The breath is our channel, our inner bridge to the heavens in which Gods and liberated souls look upon us with destiny and hope.
Typically, we define and connect to our lives by the material realm—the roles, labels, responsibilities and possessions we bear in an attempt to establish an identity and purpose. The breath, however, is an inner connection to the purist expression of our life as it is first experienced from within and is not yet defined or influenced by the ever-changing external and material world.
As we are born, we take in with a gasp, the first breath and our karmically wise Self weeps in awe again of such a gift. As babies, by nature, we breathe the yoga breath; our bellies rise and fall to the call of those inner ocean swells. But as time grows us, we forget this breath, we adapt to the chaotic circumstances beyond our body’s walls and we neglect our inner immaculacy and supreme intelligence.
Our practice, however, is a time of remembrance. The body begins to remember its own resilience and natural order. The mind begins to soften, and the soul—well, the soul is awakened. The breath dissolves the armor that shields us from recognizing our inner beauty and inner life, as if creation herself is peeling back the layers of obstruction to shine light into our own truth.
As breath clears the dust from our body-mind, we begin to witness our inner landscapes and we can better cultivate our intuition, creative capacity and energetic vitality. We begin to see ourselves as an authentic extension of the divine. One well-intended breath after another, we remember our true essence. Breath brings us back to humility and awe, a simple innocence rediscovered, and just like the newborn, we open to the grace of our life with full belly, eyes wide and arms reaching.
Our yoga and breathing practices can translate to sacred living beyond the mat.
So long as you are on this plane of existence, your practice is always held within the breath. You may not be able to do warriors in the grocery store (though I have been known to) or downward dogs when someone cuts you off in traffic, but you can breathe.
When tension takes over your body, or when the mind pulls you into caves of worrisome thought, or the emotions wreak havoc on your state of peace, the breath can be the light to pull you out. Within that breath you can place remembrance and intention, and feed sacred meaning into every aspect of your life.
When established from a place of deep inquiry and reverence, the breath can realign the modern practice by restoring the roots of sacred movement and meditation in motion. As we lend our awareness to the mysterious tides of the breath, it can take us on an inner journey, one that enhances our relationship to the divine and our relationship to our most precious Self.
With breath we can celebrate the primary essence of life and the source of the all-powerful as it nourishes and sustains us from within. When we abandon our breath for the aesthetics or performance of asana, we are abandoning our life and neglecting the source of our true Self.
When we honor the breath in all its glory and contemplate the vast possibility of what it represents, we are restoring our practice to the ultimate state of union. Please, remember that when we step onto our mat or sit before our altar we are entering into a space that is ancient and omnipotent, a space that is to be embellished with deep gratitude and unshakable honor and devotion.
I bow to the divine life within you, and I celebrate your unique journey, step by step, and breath by mindful breath.
Robin Afinowich is a yoga teacher, spiritual psychology coach, energetic body worker, mother and nature lover. She encourages you to believe in yourself; to accept, honor and recognize your ability to create a peaceful, powerful and fulfilling life that is built on the integrity and wisdom of your deepest intentions. Learn more at RobinYoga.com.
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- Assistant Editor: Catherine Monkman
- Ed: Brianna Bemel