To be completely honest and forthcoming, when I started my yoga journey over 3 years ago I was really only focused on the physical aspects of yoga. I wanted to work on becoming more fit and healthy in the physical sense. I had never even really considered meditation and breath work at all, much less as a part of the healthy changes I wanted to begin to incorporate into my lifestyle. In fact, breathing and breath work became the most difficult part of yoga practice for me. Obviously I could not do all of the asanas (poses) immediately or well, but I found with practice I improved pretty quickly with most of the asanas. Breath work, or pranayama, was not the same way.
I struggled. At first I could not see the benefit, I thought it was kind of stupid and a waste of time. I wanted to be moving in class, not sitting and breathing in strange ways and in strange patterns. To say I was resistant was putting it mildly. I just did not see how breathing was going to change my life the way my teacher said it would. Eventually I gave in and just surrendered to observation. I was not on board yet, but finally heard it enough to be curious. Pay attention to the quality of your breath, my teacher would say. So I did just that. And wow. Just WOW! When I finally stopped and noticed, I was shocked at the poor quality of my breath. Once I let go of the resistance and paid attention to my breathing I realized I had been doing it wrong, for a very, very long time.
Like most people, I am very busy and my life consists of a lot of stress. The more stressed I got, the worse my breathing became. Through my observations, I noticed that I am a very shallow, high chest breather by nature. I was not breathing deeply at all, nor was I breathing fully into my lungs. I was always told as a child to stand up straight and suck in my gut. And this is something I still do, even unconsciously today. If you are sucking in your gut, or low belly all the time it makes it pretty hard to take in a full breath, expanding the low belly, ribs, and then high chest with each inhale. I was only breathing into one part of my lungs, not all three. Through observation comes awareness. Now that I was finally aware, I knew I had to make some changes.
As with any change, usually it works better and lasts longer when you start small. So that is what I did. I started with observation and awareness and then began incorporating small changes into my yoga practice with regard to breath work. For one, I actually put effort and purpose into breathing, something I had been reluctant to do before. Then I started paying attention to my breath when I was off my mat as well, making changes to how I breathe out in the real world. That is when the real magic started happening.
When I would get angry, upset, frustrated, stressed I would just start breathing in a conscious and deliberate manner. Sometimes it would just be long deep breathing, especially if I was in a public setting. If I was alone I could really have fun and do more of the dramatic breathing like dog breath, or even chimpanzee or lion. I started experimenting with breathing and found not only did it make me feel better, A LOT better, I was actually having fun and an enjoying it. Conscious breathing was not a waste of my time after all. Now, as soon as I feel myself becoming stressed I automatically start conscious breathing. I also found that when I focus on breathing, I am not as likely to pop off and say things out of anger or frustration. That behavior has gotten me into trouble my entire life at home, school, and work, with family, friends, and co-workers. Definitely a behavior that no longer serves me that I am glad to be putting behind me. It’s still something I am working on. Just breathe through it instead of yelling about it. Who knew!? Millions of Yogis around the world, that’s who!
Then this past weekend in a yoga class taught by my beautiful friend Tai, I had a different kind of breakthrough. I realized as I got more than half way through her class that I had been focusing on my movements and breathing so much I had not thought about anything else! Complete and total mental stillness, can you believe it? I was so surprised, I even told her about it after class. Now, of course as soon as I realized this was happening, my mind took off again. But for about 30 minutes there I was not having to chase after my thoughts. It was just me, moving on my mat, and my breath. I felt like the best Yogi ever. It was such an impactful experience. One I will not soon forget.
Breathing will always be a struggle. Achieving mental stillness through breathing and movement will continue to be something I work toward in my practice. I know this and I know this is what yoga is all about, mindful movement with breath. I do still catch myself in the old pattern of shallow, high chest breathing. But I am so much more aware now. I notice it earlier. I make effort to be aware. I catch it sooner, and can made adjustments in my breathing so much quicker than before. And I know now how much better I feel in every aspect by embracing conscious breathing properly.
By: Erika Swyryn, RYT-500