The mind also attains serenity through prolonged exhalation and holding the breath.
Yoga Sutra of Patanjali I:34 – Bouanchaud translation.
I have asthma. It wasn’t discovered until six months after I quit smoking but it’s there. I quit smoking in March of that year and by August, I was in my doctor’s office with complaints of not being able to breathe. He’d heard the story before. I left his office with prescriptions for puffers and pills and inhalers and the sage advice that it would take a minimum of a year to 18 months of inhaled steroids to clear up. In the meanwhile, here’s your appointment for the lung function test to see if the 25 years of smoking had left you with any permanent scarring. Happily, it looks like I dodged that particular bullet. I had quit in time but true to his prediction, I spent the next 18 months with the hyper-reactive airways of an asthmatic.
In Canada, there was a Lung Association advertisement with the tag line “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” Let me assure you of the truth of that matter. I’ve never experienced anything that focuses the mind quite as efficiently as not being able to get air into my lungs. It’s a terror that exists in the higher levels of consciousness and permeates every cell of the body. In YSP II:9, we learn that this basic fear of extinction is something all beings share in that it is ‘present for even the sage and develops from its own inherent source’.
I can say with some degree of confidence that the body remembers that terror right down to the cellular level and nothing brings it to the forefront of consciousness faster than any sensation in the body that resembles that moment of “I can’t breathe”.
Learning to manage my asthma was the hook that got me into my first yoga class. While loads of people come to yoga for ‘flexibility’ and ‘relaxation’, I ponied up for my first class because I read on the internet in several places that yoga was a good place to learn how to breathe correctly again. (And if the instructor wanted to babble on about all that philosophy crap, what the hell….)
Like a lot of beginners, my first attempts at savasana were anything but relaxing. I was as stiff as a board and this went on for weeks. It was agonizing to lie there, even after I figured out how to deal with that tightness in my back by bending my knees a little. Fortunately, I’m blessed with stubbornness and I stuck with it long enough to finally figure out why I got so damned tense during this ‘relaxation’ exercise. As soon as the teacher gave the word, I was out of that bastard posture like I’d been electrocuted. Savasana was the thing I hated MOST about a yoga practice.
Eventually, I observed myself enough to find the words to awkwardly explain to Kathryn what the problem was with my “relaxing”. As I was letting go in savasana, the suspension phase of breath naturally lengthened and became more pronounced. In that brief space between exhalation and inhalation, when body and mind were pausing on empty, the terror of every asthma attack I’d ever had leached out of the cells and into consciousness. I was being reminded of every moment in my life where the next breath was not something I could take for granted. Little wonder I was tense!!! Other people were relaxing and letting go, getting up feeling refreshed and buoyant. I got up with a sense of relief of having survived yet again, fully locked into the grip of the root klesha, Abhinivesha, the fear of death
Kathryn, my teacher, listened to my circular commentary as I tried to explain without having either the vocabulary or concepts to articulate what I was up against. It’s a credit to her capacity as a teacher to figure out what I was trying to say. As the body was relaxing and letting go during the suspension phase of breathe, as I was consciously following breath in and out of my body as a way to ‘relax’, my mind was completely freaking out that I would ‘forget’ to inhale again. The deeper the relaxation of the muscles, the more sustained the suspension phase became on its own, the more panicked my mind became that I would “forget” to start up again.
Since mind was the problem, her solution was to give the mind something else to play with. Instead of attending to the sensations in my chest, she advised me to pay attention to the sensations of breath in my nose, the coolness of the inhale past the septum and the warm humidity of an outward breath on the upper lip.
It worked, almost from the first go. In subsequent practices, when I’d start to feel that familiar rise of panic, I could refocus my attention to the sensations of the nose and the terror would recede. The body started to relax. I lost that sense of needing to be in a constant state of vigilance. Mind, slowly, learned to start to trust body again. Relax. Let go. Body will remember to inhale. It was the start of the truce between my mind and body as both learned to work with one another instead one trying to dominate the other, with mind usually winning.
Bernard Bouanchaud, in his commentary for this sutra, poses the question “Can a person suffering from respiratory insufficiency breathe this way without the help of an experienced teacher?” In my limited experience, the answer is “No”. I wouldn’t have stuck with yoga much longer if it hadn’t been for the experience of my teacher, recognizing that the problem originated in mind, to provide me with a simple and elegant solution to the problem. If I’d been trying to learn yoga from a book or DVD, I would have given up within those first initial months because the terror would have won.
I know it always sounds self-serving for a yoga teacher to say it’s best to learn yoga from a teacher as opposed to other mediums but there it is. You can’t ask a book or DVD to help you modify a practice when you don’t understand what the problem is.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and Namaste,