“When you experience the vibration of your breath…when you feel constant change in all that is going on around you right now, then you have deep insight into the meaning of life.”
Richard Freeman – The Mirror of Yoga
When I first started practising yoga, I noticed that the simplest way to find calm in a class, was to breathe deeply. I saw clearly that tuning in to this ceaseless cycle of inhale and exhale, profoundly improved the way that I felt. Five years ago, this emerging belief in the breath was a deep sensation that I could not articulate. As my relationship to the practice has evolved, I have spent time tracing this precious connective thread. The elemental fluctuation of our breathing cycle weaves together anatomy and emotion, connects us to the world around us, and contains within its very nature the fabric of reality itself. In short, all of yoga exists within the breath.
The concept of noticing my inhale and exhale, of becoming aware of an activity I had been engaged in since birth, began in my body. It was anatomical and therapy-based books that I first bought, in an effort to understand how to describe what was taking place inside me, as I moved and breathed. I read Yoga as Medicine, and Yoga Anatomy. These reading choices are significant: it was instantly apparent to me that there was a connection between an ancient eastern system I had assumed to be ‘outside of science’, and the theoretical, anatomical landscape that my thinking, analytical mind was then more comfortable to inhabit.
I saw in the physical description of the breathing process, a physiological representation of the potent healing I was experiencing through my breath. The central and integrated position of the diaphragm, and its connective tissue relationships to the pericardium and peritoneum, showed me that this new deeper breath had the power to massage my heart and digestive system. The diaphragm’s skeletal attachments to sternum, ribs, and lower spine, the fact it is pierced by the vena cava, the parallel movements reflected in our vocal and pelvic diaphragms at the top and bottom of our digestive tract, as the breath tones and strengthens our internal biology, revealed that an action I had believed to be happening in my lungs, was taking place throughout my entire body. It was an anatomical introduction to all that yoga teaches, that everything is connected, and that while we may need to dissect and dismember the whole in order to describe or relate to it, we must not forget to put the pieces back together again afterwards, to remember that these dividing lines are our own.
In exploring the connection between breath and body, I discovered a link between breath, body, and mind. Patanjali’s Sutra 1.34 describes ‘the calm that is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath’, and Richard Freeman’s exquisite description of ‘the mind and the…breath moving together like two fish swimming in tandem’, are both observations of the simple fact that how we breathe, affects how we think and feel.
But it goes deeper still than this, catalysing a new state of awareness that reveals connections between other parts of our life. In bringing a part of my autonomic nervous system into focus, I began to notice other patterns that had become so habitual they were almost as automatic as breathing: I over-analyse everything. I take things too seriously. I don’t know how to let go. I am an anxious person. I saw the instinctive movement of breath in and breath out, and I also saw these instinctive phrases I used to describe myself, to myself. I realised the assumptions I had about who I am, were just that. None of them were written into my bones. None of them were life sentences. Sutra 2.16 reads ‘Pain that has not yet come is avoidable’, which is similar in sentiment to one of my favourite lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘The mind…in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’. We are not powerless. We are not the world’s rag doll. We have the agency to transform our experience of this life. Unlocking my breath, helped me to unlock a set of certain fixed things that I used to define myself. ‘By shaping and stretching and thereby freeing the breath, we can liberate the mind.’
The power of conscious breathing, runs even deeper than full breath, body, and mind integration: it contains within it the truth of the human condition, and the cyclical ever-changing impermanence of reality. I was once breathed by my mother, nestled inside her, my foetal heart a singular organ. At birth we became two, the umbilical cord cut as I took that first forceful inhalation, separating my heart into a two-sided organ with a left and a right pump. I experienced gravity for the first time, I became aware of the boundary of my own skin, and from this seed moment of division, the human illusion of separateness that would lead to Ego, was born. In developing a conscious relationship with my breath, I am healing these false lines of delineation, tracing that path back to a time before birth, when my life force was a part of this universal whole, and realising that it still is, it is simply often obscured by the unavoidable presence of thought.
Deeper still into the kernel of truth that I have found in breath, is the cycle of inhale and exhale, mirroring the cycles of day and night, of the seasons, of birth and death, of lunar phases, of ovulation and menstruation, of planetary orbits. The breath is a microcosm of a wider universal truth of constant change, and ‘vinyasa yoga is a meditation on impermanence’. As I learn to let go of each breath, and of every pose, I find it easier to let go of other fixed points, to stop yearning for permanence. I am learning to move through shifting states, to experience fleeting joy and passing wrath, momentary ecstasy and temporary depression, sudden freedom and creeping stress, knowing that true happiness exists in the background to all these things. Steve Hagen says of every single thing, of every emotion, of every experience, of every moment, and of every breath, ‘This will never come again’.
The beauty of a conscious relationship with breath, is that everything I have described here happens when you breathe, whether you have the words for it or not. When Sri K Pattabhi Jois famously said that ‘yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory’, he did not mean for us not to read books, not to study, not to engage with philosophical thought. I believe that he meant that the yoga is not the description of the yoga. As Freeman says, ‘when we look at a map…it is not actually the territory it represents’. This magical, breath-led practice, had a transformative effect on my entire life, before I could articulate any of what I have written here.
This is why I say that all of yoga exists within the breath. I was twenty-three years old before I found my yoga practice; I was twenty-three years old before I realised I was breathing.
A big thank you to Michael O’Snyder for allowing me to use these exquisite photographs. You can check out more of his work here: http://www.michaelosnyder.com and on Instagram @michaelosnyder
Books that contributed to this piece:
Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing – Timothy McCall MD, Bantam Books
Yoga Anatomy – Leslie Kaminoff & Amy Matthews, 2nd Edition, Human Kinetics
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation & Commentary – Sri Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications
The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body & Mind – Richard Freeman, Shambala Publications
Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy – Gregor Maehle