Become Aware – the breath is affected by and affects every layer of our being. When we labor in physical activity it changes accordingly, when we are sad, mad, glad or afraid there is a signature breath that accompanies each emotional state, when our thoughts are rapid and manic our breath is different than when our mind is calm. Feel your breath in your body throughout your day and practice and watch how it reflects your state of being. Conversely, notice how working with your breath affects your body, mind and heart. You can play with this right now by evoking a thought that creates anxiety and watch what happens in your breath and its surrounding muscular support. Then take three deep breaths and see what happens. On the mat, watch your reactions to each pose or movement at each level of your being (body, mind and heart) and see what happens in your breath.
Unfixate – The muscles that create and support breathing often get fixated. We end up, quite often, with short, shallow breaths that originate in the secondary breathing muscles of the upper chest and neck. Sometimes, we hold the breath in or out. Sometimes we breath like Darth Vader or a mating rabbit! No breath is right or wrong, but when we fixate into some of these unconscious patterns the breath is unable to respond appropriately to the moment. It cannot, for example, engage deeply when needed, or soften to release stored emotions. So in becoming aware we can also begin to release these patterns consciously, by relaxing where we are holding, by opening where we are closed, by lengthing where we are tight or strengthening where we are weak. The various movements and pranayama (breath work) of yoga all serve this purpose, but very simply just becoming aware of patterns can be the first step. Notice if you feel tension anywhere in your torso and ribs, if you’ve been holding your breath or if you feel particularly “thirsty” for breath right now and in your practice. Begin to consciously allow your breath to respond to the moment with it’s great intelligence. It knows what kind of life force flow you need – can you let it move?
Experiment – Try out different kinds of breathing and see what it does to you! What happens if you extend your exhale? What do you feel if you “cough” your exhale out, making your belly and diaphragm jump a little? What do you notice if you hold the breath in at the top of a big inhalation? What goes on if you invite a light snoring sound to your breath (ujjayi – for the yogi’s)? As you get to know your breath you can invite different types of breath in – consciously – to take you deeper into a pose, a sensation or an emotion. This is a way of intelligently responding to our needs.
Live or Practice With Softenss In Mind – we tend to exhale (especially big yoga sighs) by tightening the muscles around the ribs or tummy rather than by softening- and this is often hard to catch as it is quite subtle. Instead of letting the breath fall out we push it out (by contracting) or collapse our chest and ribs (like a heave) which forces the breath out. This can lead to fixations in the diaphragm itself that can cause various side effects. In your chair right now or in asana, keep the spine extended, and gently soften and relax the diaphragm on your exhale. Feel a softening of the muscles of your belly, ribs and solar plexus area. As you inhale expand into the soft tissue you’ve just created. Don’t worry if you can’t find the softness – it can be long term work – but try it from time to time. Take this into your practice and even try focussing on this work rather than the “stretch” in some part of your body and see what happens.
Let Yourself Be Moved By Your Breath – When you can feel your breath move you in your asana or your day then you are in a state of soft receiving. Energy can flow in this state, the mind is more likely to open, the heart to be greatful and the body to be soft. In downward dog, find length in your bones and ensure that your joints are soft. Engage your muscles without hardening them an see if you can still experience your breath affecting your from the center of your body out to the periphery. In Warrior II, if you are relaxed in the torso, your arms will undulate with the movement of your inhale and exhale. The breath and the energy it carries can access your whole being. When we allow ourselves to be affected by our breath we open to being moved by a force beyond our ego. This is an act of surrender and of grace. Learning to be moved by the force of the breath can help us to let go of our resistence to other forces of life. Through this work we can learn to stop reacting to life through rigidity, but instead absorbe the forces of life, feel ourselves moved by them and learn to flow. Let breath breathe you, let life live you, let Spirit move you.