How to Connect Yoga Movements with Breath
The First Movement
From the moment of conception our bodies begin to breathe. Each cell in the body expands, condenses, and rests in an internal rhythmic pattern, a pattern that will become amplified into full-body breathing at the moment of birth. This first movement is the basic template for our existence. Whether we are sitting still, running up a hill, or sound asleep, the breath acts as a continuous resonant presence infusing and influencing all other processes, from the chemical reactions of our cells to our moment-to-moment psychological and emotional state.
The fundamental nature of the breath is that it is in a constant state of oscillation. Just as the tides ebb and flow, we breathe in and out in an ongoing rhythm that ceases only when we take our last breath. All other physical and psychological patterns build successively from this one central motif (Figs. 1–3). For this reason, if the movement of the breath is restricted or distorted in some way, all other patterns of our movement and consciousness will also be restricted or distorted. Every other process in the body is reliant upon this one central process.
The oscillation of breathing is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. Life is like a swinging pendulum, some changes bringing with them difficulties and pain and other changes bringing with them ease and joy. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting our breath.
When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening, we are saying that we do not want to be moved. In those moments our desire for certainty has become much stronger than our desire to be dynamically alive. Breathing freely is a courageous act. What we discover is that our desire for stasis, our clinging to the life we know, and our bending of every situation to the security of our mental constructs are the very things that destroy our creativity and ability to live freely.
Breathing happens to us when we remove the obstacles we have erected to its free movement. As such, the most common misunderstanding about breathing is that it improves through a forceful effort of the will. Anyone who has tried to breathe deeper through aggressive strategies knows that mechanical efforts to breathe better only result in making the breathing more restricted and more limited.
Breathing is both a process that happens unconsciously or automatically and a process that can be controlled consciously through the will of our minds. At one end of a continuum breathing remains unconscious so that we can go about our business without having constantly to think about taking a breath in or out. At the other end of the continuum breathing can be controlled and manipulated.
The yogis developed sophisticated protocols for unleashing the power of the breath, called pranayama practices. The root word pra denotes constancy, and na means movement.
Therefore prana is a force in constant motion. In between these two ends of the continuum lies a third possibility, one that should precede any formal pranayama practice, and that is the place where we simply become conscious of being breathed. We allow this essential breathing to happen to us naturally.
Becoming attuned to your breath is like learning to dance the waltz with another person. At first you have to become familiar with your dance partner—how he moves, when he moves, and where he moves. To be a good dance partner with the breath you must be suggestible and let the wisdom of the breath guide all of your movements.
As you learn to follow the lead of the breath, you will know what to do next. I call this “moving inside the breath.” At other times, when you do not have a connection to your breath, you are moving “outside” the breath. When you do this, it will feel like dancing the waltz by yourself. As you become more masterfully attuned to your breath, the division between leader and follower dissolves and all that is left is the dance itself.
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