It’s all in the breath

Jenny Hansen shares her experience of Teacher Training in the Spring/Summer of 2013 in a series entitled The Mirrored Mat: Reflections on Life and Yoga. 

Tuesday morning, 8:15-ish, and I’m headed north on the Tollway to work. I’m running late, as per usual, my hair still wet from the shower, and I’ve forgotten to put on earrings. Sipping my coffee (third cup of the day – likely won’t be the last), ear buds in, navigating traffic, semi-conscious of the world around me while the rest of my brain goes through the rolodex of anatomical terms I’ve stuffed into my grey matter for tonight’s yoga training Anatomy test.

I’m tired. I’m anxious. I’m annoyed at the idiot in the Nissan in front of me. I’m distracted. I’m overwhelmed by the idea that I have to take a test – no, A BIG HARD EXAM – mere hours from now and unconvinced I’m adequately prepared. How much money is left on my tolltag? Quadratus anterior medius gracillis dorsi…. I have no idea.

But then, out of the chaotic fog that has become my weekday morning, a thought occurs: breathe. Not just inhale-exhale, but breathe – really breathe. I close my mouth and take a deep, slow inhalation through my nose, my ribs expanding as my lungs fill with air. Just as slowly, and deeply, I exhale out through my nose, an open-throated whisper that echoes an ocean wave. Total breath takes maybe 10 seconds, but in those brief moments, something has changed. My environment is exactly as it was before, my anatomy test still looms large on this evening’s agenda, my hair is still wet, and I’m still tired. And yet, I’m different. An act of conscious, thoughtful respiration has bestowed an air of calm and quiet that is nothing short of miraculous. Almost instantly, a slice of sanity has been restored, and the world seems a little kinder, warmer and welcoming.

What just happened? Yoga just happened, y’all. And that’s not hyperbole. If there is any one thing that yoga has taught me, one thing that I can do at anytime, anywhere, one thing that reaps instant rewards, one thing that has empowered me more than the strength, flexibility and knowledge I have gained from my practice, it is breath. Ujjayi pranayama, specifically, and it is without a doubt the component of my yoga experience that has had the most impact.

According to Wikipedia, “Ujjayi Pranayama is a balancing and calming breath which increases oxygenation and builds internal body heat.” An audible nasal breath, instructors frequently cue ujjayi as whispering with the mouth closed to encourage practitioners to open their throats. The resulting sound is akin to a soft ocean wave, and reminds me of holding a shell to my ear as a child to ‘hear the sea.’ It is not automatic; it takes practice and intention, but leaves me with such a profound sense of truly being in my body, unlocking a part of my foundation, my center. It’s like Zen on tap, and it is glorious.

It’s midday, I’m eating lunch at my desk, and an anatomy review is what I should be doing. My office to-do list is long on time and heavy on effort with emails/phone calls to return and collateral to create. Oh, and then there’s the incessantly-coughing-coworker (every eight seconds – yep, I timed it) who I’ve debated approaching with cough drops and/or duct tape. Needless to say, I am not relaxed. I am anything but relaxed. By now I’ve had four cups of coffee, I’ve been sitting down almost all day, I feel frazzled, and buckling down to the tasks at hand seems like a lofty goal. But then again, right when I think I’m just about to give my so-called adult life and the rest of the world the tall finger, a brief thought, followed by a simple action, calms the clamor and brings me back to earth. The breath is magic.

My favorite part of every yoga class is the very beginning, in child’s pose. I usually practice in the early evening, so I’ve battled rush hour traffic and a full day at the office to get to this point – but this point is awesome. It’s quiet, I can feel the heat from the panels on the ceiling, I’m alone on my mat and I begin to breathe – really breathe. I feel like I’m breathing for the first time that day, that I’m awake and alive and winding down all at the same time. The only sound is breath – my own, and from those around me. It fills the room, holds the space; just like that, my day, the traffic, the coughing coworker all slip away.

Yoga is a deeply spiritual process for me, and nowhere is that more evident than in these first few moments of class, those first few ujjayi breaths. An action that is otherwise automatic and unnoticed, a simple sound that is present but not overpowering, the breath becomes a sort of mantra, a wordless prayer that I send out to my mat, the space, the universe. As the instructor leads us through integration, sun salutations, and into the fiery heat of the warrior series, the breath is constant, an electric current that mobilizes and sustains each movement. It’s almost transcendental, to the point where I am absolutely convinced I am connected to something greater than myself. That something is different for everyone, but for me, that something is inherently strong, safe and empowering. This is the essence of my practice, and my love for yoga. If I do nothing all day but find a few quiet moments to be still and breathe – in my office, my apartment, my car, or on the mat – I will have worked wonders for both body and soul.

Yoga periodically suffers from preconceived notions about what it is, what it does, and who it attracts. The myriad of excuses keeping would-be practitioners from ever entering a studio: yoga isn’t exercise, it’s just stretching, it’s too hot, it’s religious, it’s weird, it’s new age, it’s only for flexible, skinny people, it’s for women. Such misleading info would make any middle-aged desk jockey apprehensive about wandering into a class, fearful of lithe, Lululemon-clad blondes, pretzel-prone and fabulous on their mats.

Thankfully, mercifully, my experience has been nothing of the sort. When I first began practicing yoga in 2007, I tipped the scale at well over 200 lbs, I didn’t own a stitch of brand-name apparel (still don’t), and could barely touch my knees, much less my toes. But what I could do, right from the get-go, was breathe. In that heated studio, sweating, insecure, I could breathe along with the rest of the class, and there was such power in that. Even better, it did something for me on a deeper level. My warrior II was wonky and my downward-facing dog stood on shaky legs, but my breath was solid and I felt strong. As my practice developed, so did my breath and its usage, until it expanded out of the studio and into the rest of my life, be it while battling traffic, sitting at my desk, or watching TV. Yoga is many things for many different people, but from that first moment of ujjayi pranayama, I discovered that yoga was simple, pure, and exactly what I needed it to be. Pretzel poses be damned, I can rock my breath and feel awesome about it, and frequently, that’s all it takes for me to OK in my own skin. From there, anything is possible.

It’s just after 3pm, and t-minus five hours until THE EXAM, which will be preceded by a sweaty, powerful flow at 6:30pm. I keep reminding myself that I signed up for this, I paid for this, this is all my choice, and yet I still want to bitch and moan that I’m in my 30s for Pete’s sake and shouldn’t have to take any more tests. I have enough work to keep me busy through the end of the day, but will sneak peeks at my anatomy notes until then to make sure I know what the hell the gastrocnemius is and what it does. I already have little butterflies flittering to and fro in my gut, and hope I remember the little isms and tricks I’ve taught myself to remember which muscles do what and where and why. Until then, I will be a good worker bee and guzzle water like a boss. I will try not to stress. I will try even harder to just focus already.

But then I will pause, mid-sentence, mid-thought. I will close my eyes for a moment and inhale – slowly, steadily, deeply – through my nose, the air rushing through my nasal cavity, down my throat and into my lungs, followed by a generous, humid exhale that will travel the same path. It will be a small action for a monumental shift. It will be just what I need.

2 replies
  1. Amy Wachal
    Amy Wachal says:

    I already want to take your class. You get it and you will help others get it. Find somewhere to teach.
    🙂

    Reply

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