One of the most common reasons I hear for why people don’t do yoga is that they’re “not flexible enough”.
Aside from the fact that this is exactly why they would get so much out of yoga, practicing yoga does not require you to be flexible!
When I went to my first class (an Iyengar class on the North Shore of Auckland in 1995), my body was so tight that just to sit on the floor with a straight spine and straight legs, I had to perch up something like four blankets!
Thank goodness I’d stumbled into a style of yoga that was generous with props.
So if you’ve been putting off starting yoga because you’re not flexible, or because your hamstings are too tight, know this –
Yoga is not all about asana (postures), and someone who is paralysed from the neck down can practice yoga. In fact, if you can breathe, you can practice yoga.
Yet our external focus on what we think yoga looks like means that beginning students often miss this fundamental aspect of the practice of yoga – yoga is all about the breath. If you’re not aware of your breath while you’re moving through asana (posture), you’re not even doing yoga – it’s gymnastics.
The beauty of the breath is that it doesn’t require a mat, nor fancy clothes, nor knowledge of how to do it right… tuning into our breath merely requires that we are present in the moment right here right now.
You can do this sitting at your computer, driving to work, watching the kids play soccer, even watching television.
Take a moment now to explore your breath properly – and as you breathe, ponder this:
Breathing is the only bodily function that is both unconscious and conscious. That is, like digestion, we don’t have to think about it for it to happen. But, unlike digestion (unless you happen to be a master yogi and can control your internal organs as well), we can consciously direct our breath – slowing it down, speeding it up, holding it in, holding it out, making funny noises with it…
The breath is the link between our unconscious and consciousness. When you begin to work with the breath, you literally begin to “wake up”, or become conscious to the present moment. You shift from being unconscious of the thoughts and feelings that drive your reactions on a moment by moment basis, and becoming aware of those thoughts, aware of those feelings and realising that you can actually choose what actions you want to take. Becoming aware of the breath is the first step away from living reactively, and toward living responsively.
Breathing connects us with other people – you exhale, I inhale, we share the breath, we are connected via the breath. It is the breath more than anything else which materially and spiritually demonstrates our interconnectedness, our oneness, our unity.
When we breathe, we inhale particles of the universe from “outside” of ourselves that have (over many, many centuries) been breathed by millions and billions of people including Jesus, Buddha, Mother Theresa, Madonna, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Breath is part of us, yet it is also part of the “outside” world. Where does the line of separation lie?
Life itself is defined by the act of respiration. We are born with our first breath, we die with our last breath. Nothing living exists without breathing. Grasping the fundamental connection between living and breathing means that as we become conscious of our breath and breathe more fully… we come alive and live more fully. And it is impossible to separate out oneself from breath and still be alive. We can stop eating and live for a matter of weeks. We can stop drinking and live for a matter of days. But if we stop breathing, we have mere minutes left alive.
On the material level, the breath reminds us that nothing is static in this universe – everything is forever changing, cycling, shifting, coming, going, rising, falling, inhaling, exhaling. All matter, which we perceive to be static and solid, is a dance of wave and particle in constant fluid motion – just like the breath. Connecting to our breath takes us away from the illusionary state of static holding and into the real state of change and flow.
On the spiritual level, the word “inspire” means “to breath”, or “to be in spirit”. Breath and spirit are forever linked – when we breathe deeply and fully, we awaken the spirit within, becoming more alive, more present, more full. When we shrink from life and from living, denying who we truly are, taking only short, shallow, chest breaths… we are deadening the spirit within, dimming our internal light. Breath is the life force which flows through all of us – it is Prana.
When we connect to our breath, feeling it within our body, we’re connecting to the flow of Prana within. Breathing is not just about taking in oxygen to the lungs. As we inhale, air passes through the nasal passages where it is filtered and humidified before flowing down into the lungs. There, gases diffuse into and out of the bloodstream via tiny vessels. The bloodstream infiltrates all tissue, carrying oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of every single cell in our body.
Each individual cell in essence respires. So when your yoga teacher tells you to breathe into your spine, or breathe into your hips… she is not just speaking metaphorically. We literally do breathe into our spine, our hips, our legs… every part of our body. The only question is whether we are conscious of it or not.
Becoming conscious of this process means we can begin to direct it – we can focus on which parts of the body we want to flood with breath, with Prana, with life.
Breath demonstrates the basic nature of the Universe – giving and taking. Everything flows in and out, up and down. Everything is in relationship to something else. We breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and out oxygen. So the great dance of life goes on. To deny our connectedness to everything else that is, to deny our connectedness to each other is to deny life itself.
For those scientifically or medically-minded, connecting with the breath via yoga has very real affect on us physiologically. Breath is ruled by the two nervous systems in the body – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system rules unconscious functioning of the body. It acts on organs and blood vessels to prepare us to react to stressful situations. These nerves arise mainly in the thoracic (chest) segments of the spinal cord. If we’re breathing unconsciously from our chest, we are in fight-or-flight syndrome… and many of us live in this place hour to hour, day in and day out. It’s no wonder we feel stressed all the time and have to drink to relax, or hypnotise ourselves in front of the television for hours in the evening in order to chill out!
The parasympathetic nervous system operates in quiet, non-stressful situations and its activity dominates when we’re sleeping. These nerves arise in the brain stem and the lower spinal chord. This is the nervous system that is activated when we are conscious of our breathing in our yoga practice.
The very act of becoming conscious of your breathing, the very act of breathing fully into the lungs, shifts our experience of life from being controlled by the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system to being controlled by the chilled-out, relaxed parasympathetic nervous system.
This is why we feel blissed-out and present after a yoga practice that has included pranayama. Biologically, we’re experiencing a different reality.
The simplest form of pranayama is simply being aware of the full yogic breath in every moment. Due to all of the above reasons, this is an extraordinary practice. Adding in other pranayama to your yoga practice can turbo charge your growth and transformation. Some of these include:
- Dirgha Pranayama
- Ujjayi Pranayama
- Kapalabhati Pranayama
- Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
- Agni Pranayama
I’ll go into more detail about pranayama I regularly use in my practice in a follow-up article to this. In the meantime, as you go about your day, take the time to become conscious of your breath in every available moment.
In this simple way, you can shift to living unconsciously and reactively, to living consciously and responsively. You can shift from being stressed and feeling under pressure, to being present and relaxed. You can shift from believing yourself to be separate from the world, to feeling your connection to All that Is.
Breath by breath, moment by moment, shifting into an awakened state of being.
That is Life, that is living.