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November 2020 - Yoga and Your Breath

Dear Yoga Friends,

Unless you happen to be living in a cave somewhere without internet access, you might share my feelings of anxiety, grief, and tension. And these are just the first emotions that happened to bubble up for me. Our states of mind depend increasingly on unprecedented health, political, and environmental crises, the inconvenient truths of this new era we live in. Do you remember a time when such diverse global currents affected day-to-day life so profoundly? I don't.

We can and should strive to become leaders to guide others through the pandemic, political divisiveness, and environmental degradation. How can yoga help? Probably not by getting everyone in the world into padmasana (although that might actually have a positive effect if achieved). I suggest that everyone build a more intimate awareness of and connection to their breath.

If you have not yet read the recent book Breath by James Nestor, check it out. I read the book in July, and it inspired my summer newsletter which procrastination turned into this fall newsletter. Nestor's book covers an impressive range of facts and practices that will change the way you think about and experience breathing. Nestor presents extensive research and a rich worldly context that confirms much of what we already know from yoga. Key takeaways include the importance of breathing through your nose, breathing evenly, and at least at times, more slowly. But the biggest takeaway is that similar themes have ebbed and flowed over generations, sometimes lost only to be rediscovered, with effective practices emerging from students of the breath in an astonishing range of fields.

As expected, the yoga sutras boil it down to a deep simplicity. Consider sutras 1.31 & 1.34 (translations from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar):

Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body, and irregular breathing further distract the citta.

Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation.

To add some context, sutra 1.31 lists four obstacles to finding the true self. I'm pretty sure this self must be free of the conflict and duality that characterize today's global crises and our internal reactions to them. Unsteady breathing is spelled out as a major obstacle. Sutra 1.34 invites pranayama practice, offering up observation and steadying of the breath as one of the paths to a steadier mind and state of being.

The best thing about all this is that it works. For most of us, the breath is the only vital bodily function that is under both involuntary and voluntary control. If left alone, the breath settles into an even or uneven rhythm, influenced by our state of mind. But the process works in reverse. Subtle steering of the breath feeds back into one's state of mind and consciousness.

Even or uneven, slow or fast, waking or sleeping, from the moment we enter the world to the moment we depart, our brain ensures that this process on which our survival depends never ceases. But we can intervene. Watch your breath and become aware of the nuances—the pace, smoothness, and feeling of each inhale and exhale. This awareness leads to a state of calmness, available to everyone.

Is it coincidence that the pandemic involves a respiratory illness that can require isolation, that we wait for election results with baited breath, that climate change brings us harmful smokey air? That the pandemic pushes us outdoors, maintaining physical distance from others, and that wildfire smoke drives us indoors to a different kind of solitary space? The universe must be telling us something.

As always, interested in your thoughts on this or anything else!



p.s. It's been a while since some of you have heard from me. I teach at noon on Tuesdays (mixed level) and Thursdays (intermediate) at IYISF via Zoom livestream. Feel free to drop in from anywhere in the world. :)


Chad Balch