I had my hardest yoga class this weekend…and all I did was breathe.
Yes. You read that right. No headstands. No balance postures. No postures at all. Just me, my mat, my teachers and my breath.
Early Sunday morning I met with my teachers prior to YTT to complete a breathing “exercise” I had missed the previous weekend. When I arrived, they informed me all I’d be doing for the next hour was breathing on my mat. They stressed how imperative it was to learn to just breathe during practice without the poses because yoga isn’t about the postures themselves. In fact, my teacher will frequently say, “If you do nothing else for this hour but breathe, you are doing yoga.” And it’s one thing to tell our students they can just breathe and a whole other thing to experience the power of giving yourself permission to simply breathe on your mat for your practice.
It seemed simple and fair enough. For the next hour, I’d breathe on my mat, alternating between Ujjayi breath (an ocean-like sounding breath) and Bhastrika breath (active, rapid exhalations through the nose). I could take any postures that felt good for my body with one stipulation: it had to be a posture with ease, no effort, meaning that I couldn’t be in a balance posture, chaturanga or an intense crescent lunge hold.
The first 10 minutes or so was relatively easy, but as the music blared for the pseudo-vinyasa class and my teacher talked about self-acceptance, I found myself unable to breathe and quickly took to a child’s pose. In a way, I was trying to find a pose that would close me off and shield my heart so I didn’t have to feel what was coming up. Naturally, as fate would have it, it was at that time that my teacher instructed me to practice Bhastrika breath. The rapid, active exhalations only seemed to magnify the discomfort I was already feeling and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep the emotions from coming up or stop my hands from shaking. No matter how much I wanted (and believe me I did), I couldn’t will child’s pose into a challenge pose of my choice where I could breathe through the physical and emotional discomfort.
In that moment, I realized how much of a crutch my breath was at times, how very physical yoga still was for me. Up until Sunday, yoga wasn’t about my breath. Sure, my breath was important, but only in terms of the physical. My breath either allowed me to have a “good” practice because it got me into the poses, or my breath was the reason I had a “bad” practice and couldn’t get into the postures. Up until this point, yoga was very physical – it was about how the postures felt and how I could breathe through them. Without the postures, without the physicality, without the obvious physical movement – with only my breath – all I was left with was my inner experience. And that was the last place I wanted to be.
When things are uncomfortable, we don’t want to be where we are or feel how we feel. For most of us, this concept of self-acceptance is a one-sided street where we conditionally accept ourselves. On one hand, we accept ourselves if we fit into our skinny jeans, do something that makes us proud or have an amazing yoga practice; but on the other, we refuse to accept ourselves because we had the cupcake, reacted towards a loved one, aren’t where we want to be or fell out of a yoga posture.
This conditional self-acceptance, isn’t self-acceptance at all. It’s the art of posing. It’s the belief that when we have the perfect “pose” in life, on or off our mat, we’ll be enough as we are.
Struggling with that breathing “exercise” and having the support from my teachers during my intense bouts of discomfort – a healing hand placed on my back or a deeper adjustment in a forward fold – enabled me to be present with my discomfort, to really feel and experience it breath by entangled breath. And, by just being with my inner experience, rather than posing my way through it, I was able to practice greater levels of self-acceptance. I was able to realize that self-acceptance isn’t contingent upon an outcome. Self-acceptance doesn’t care if you cry, react or fit into your skinny jeans. It just requires you to be present with what is, to melt into every moment of where you are.
This week, come back to your breath. Take moments throughout your day and week to actually close your eyes and just tune into the small space between your nose and upper lip – don’t worry if you don’t notice it immediately. Just keep breathing and directing your attention there and you’ll find it. Tune into your breath when you’re in the mall parking lot, sitting in traffic or dealing with inconsolable kids or difficult people in your work place. Come back to your breath in every moment and focus on staying in the moment between the moment for as long as possible. When you are with your breath you are able to be in the awareness of what is and only when you allow yourself to go within that inner experience, can you begin to truly live.