Yoga Dialogues

With Stephanie Kristal, M.A., R.Y.T.

The Yoga Dialogues is created as a forum to discuss the many aspects of yoga. F

 


HOMAGE TO THE BREATH
By Stephanie Kristal, M.A., R.Y.T.

Breathing In, Breathing Out Breathing In, Breathing Out
Like a wave the breath arises from and dissolves back into the source,
Guiding us into the Stillness, We remember who we are
Radiant, luminous, eternal, energy
Arising at birth, Dissolving at death
Back into the Source.


We are birthed into this world on the inbreath and released from this world on the outbreath. As long as we live, the breath breathes our body creating a beautiful dance of expansion and contraction. Yet, we pay little attention to this miracle - this gift of life.

On the inhalation, we receive oxygen and nutrients to nourish the cells of our body. On the exhalation, we rid the body of toxins and tension. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is miraculous in and of itself but the breath is much more than this process. The breath is a great teacher and powerful resource for health and healing.

Through time, the connection of the breath to health, healing, consciousness and spirit has been reflected in various cultures through their language. In Japanese, ki air/spirit. In Latin, anima spiritus breath/soul. The Chinese characters for breath, hsi, is made up of three characters that translate "of the conscious self or heart". In Sanskrit, prana is the life force energy within the air we breathe that pulses through and animates our being.

Our breath is a barometer that reflects our state of mind, our well-being and our experience in any given moment. Our thoughts and emotions affect our breath. When we have negative thoughts; are frightened; anxious or excited, our breath is rapid and shallow. When we are sad, we sigh often breathing out through the mouth, instead of the nostrils. This type of breathing occurs mostly in the upper chest. During this type of breathing, we are not using the primary and secondary muscles of respiration. Consequently, we are not taking in the capacity of oxygen we are capable of and are not ridding the lower regions of the lungs of stagnant air. When we breathe this way chronically, we feel lethargic, low energy and often depressed.

Conversely, when we bring conscious awareness to the breath and apply diaphragmatic, abdominal breathing, the breath lengthens and deepens.

Over time this type of breathing becomes natural for it is actually how we breathe when we first come in to the world as newborns. Unfortunately due to poor posture and bad habits, we often forget how to breathe in this way and have to go through the process of relearning. Diaphragmatic breathing calms and soothes the nervous system and can counteract the stress reactivity cycle before we begin to experience its negative effects. The adage "Take a deep breath!' when under stress is sound, wise advice.

In yoga, the breath and the life force energy within the breath can be controlled and directed in certain ways affecting mind, body and spirit. The science of breath is called pranayama - prana "vital life force energy" and yama "to control." We can use the breath to bring heat and energy into the body and focus the mind through ujjayi breathing. Sitali breathing has a cooling effect on the body. Bhastrika energizes and Nadi Shodhana calms and creates balance. Kapalabhati helps to prepare the body and mind for meditation. The breath can be directed to different parts of our body and energy centers that are closed, tense or in discomfort and pain. We breathe into those spaces and often the tension begins to dissipate, whole areas can begin to open and discomfort can lessen in intensity.

The breath is the bridge connecting the mind and body. When we pay attention to our breath and the sensations of our body breathing, our awareness is drawn into the body and the mind shifts from focusing on its usual distractions to focusing on the breath. As this happens the mind and body move into integration and balance. We become embodied and experience a sense of our intrinsic wholeness and unity as opposed to feeling fragmented.

In yoga, we learn the art of synchronizing the movements of the body and the breath. Take a moment to close your eyes. As you breathe in, open your hands and as you breathe out, close your hands making a loose fist. Do this for one minute. Focus on your breath and the movement of your hands. As your mind and body come into balance, notice how you feel.

Focusing on the breath as we practice the asanas allows us be present with our experience in our body from one moment to the next and to access and listen to our bodies' wisdom. The body will give us feedback as to how deeply to go into the posture, what subtle shifts we need to make and when to come out of the pose. The breath is a good indicator of when our body is beginning to fatigue as it will become strained and uneven as well as the muscles beginning to tremble. If we listen, the breath and our body will guide us through our practice and our life.

Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutras, Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah which translates to yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind or the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff. This second sutra reflects the true aim of yoga. The more we can focus our minds on one point, the breath, and allow our thoughts to arise and dissolve like waves without reacting to them but just letting them flow, the more the mind becomes calm and clear and moves into stillness like a vast spacious open sky.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that the most powerful resource for cultivating moment to moment awareness, mindfulness, is right under our noses. He reminds us that the reason we want to cultivate present moment awareness is that the present is truly the only real time we have to learn, to grow and to heal. We learn to cultivate meditative awareness by the continual focusing and refocusing on the breath. We pay attention to the breath as it arises and as it dissolves. We feel the pauses at the end of the inhalation and the slightly longer one at the end of the exhalation and we pay attention to the sensations of our body breathing. When we practice breath meditation, what we discover is that the breath is always changing- sometimes long, sometimes short, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, smooth and then uneven. We notice that just as each wave of the sea is different than the next although at first glance they seem the same, the breath is always in flux. As we get comfortable with the continual change of this very basic process, it sets the ground for becoming more comfortable with change in our life from the small changes to major life transitions, loss, chronic pain, illness, etc.

As we begin to ride the waves of the breath we allow each moment to unfold just as it is and we begin to accept ourselves just as we are in each moment already complete and whole. Whether it is calm or stormy, we remain centered in our own being.

When we begin to focus within and quiet inside, we often experience calm, insight and clarity as the usual distractions of the mind fade away. We also learn that we don't need to react to every thought, feeling, body sensation or situation that arises but we can sit with our experience, breathe with it and then choose to respond more appropriately or not to respond. As Lao-Tzu writes in the Tao-te-Ching:

Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The breath is a navigational guide on a journey inward so that we may connect with the stillness deep inside. We are able to access through the breath deep realms of relaxation, inner peace and joy. Within that rich vibrant stillness, we experience our innate wholeness and we begin to remember who we really are.

As the breath takes us through all the layers of our being from the most dense - the physical body to the most subtle - the energy body, we realize our true Self as a radiant, eternal luminous, energy being. We experience our deep interconnection and interbeing with all that is, recognizing we are all a part of the same source of divine energy. As we drop into the vast spaciousness, we feel the possibilities within us and all around us. Guided by the breath, we enter into the stillness and open to our unlimited potential as human beings.

Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
When you really look for me, you will find me instantly-
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
{S}he is the breath inside the breath.

--KABIR

by Stephanie Kristal


PAST YOGA DIALOGUES COLUMNS:

Other articles by Stephanie Kristal: Yoga and Menopause

Stephanie Kristal is the founder and director of The Birch Street Wellness Center. Stephanie is a certified yoga teacher, transpersonal hypnotherapist and Integrative Yoga Therapist. Stephanie has been practicing yoga and meditation for over 25 years. For the past 20 years, Stephanie has been teaching yoga classes in a variety of settings. She has a private practice in therapeutic yoga, life coaching and transpersonal hypnotherapy in West Hurley, NY. She also facilitates workshops in stress management, visioning and yoga and mindfulness meditation as healing modalities related to specific conditions. In the community, Stephanie has worked as a yoga therapist at the wellness centers of Northern Duchess Hospital in Rhinebeck, NY and at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, NY. She established a not-for profit yoga class for people living with HIV/AIDS. Her private clients include people living with back problems, scoliosis, postural imbalances, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, depression, anxiety, multiple sclerosis and asthma.



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