Monday, November 19, 2012

There is Always the Breath

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. ~Thích Nht Hnh

I am truly blessed to have some amazing teachers in my life. Recently I got a really great reminder from two of my recent yoga teachers.  The first came from a teacher who I had not seen in awhile. I have not been attending her class much because of the pain in my hip. But something told me last week I had to go to her class. Although there were moments the class hurt, she came up to me at the end of class and said, “You might need to curl up in a ball and just breathe. You always have the breath.”

What a wonderful reminder.

And the reminder came again the next day from another of my amazing teachers. It was obviously a week where my hip was bothering me more than others, and she came up to me in savasana and simply said, “Breathe into the areas that do not hurt.” This breath is a beautiful way to move through our pain, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any other kind. The breath is always there for us.

The breath is the gateway to our prana, our life force. In Chinese medicine it is called qi (pronounced chee). Breathing techniques are called pranayama because they move the breath in different ways. When we control the breath, we can control ourselves. As the quote above states, we can anchor ourselves through our breath. No matter what comes our way, we always have the breath.

I know that when we go into fight-or-flight, our breath shortens and speeds up. What I do not know is why it does that. I understand the evolutionary need to tense our muscles and be ready to attack or run for our lives, but is that not exactly when we need our breath to be most full?

Although we know we can always return to the breath, actually doing it is sometimes more difficult than we would like to admit. Our natural response is to turn away from the breath, to move strictly into survival mode. And yes, that is exactly when we need to focus on the breath the most. That is most when we need it to anchor us, not just in ourselves but in our external world as well.

But how do we ensure we can do that when we get so overwhelmed? Just like anything in life, practice, practice, practice. This is one of the major advantages of an asana (posture) practice. When the going gets tough, we always can come back to the breath. In an asana-based yoga class, hopefully there is a teacher reminding us over and over again to come back to the breath. When it is obvious pain remains, hopefully someone reaches out and reminds us the breath is there to tap into what feels good.

And we can practice pranayama, or breath control. The more attention we give to the breath, the more likely we are to remember it is there when we need it most. This post is not the time to go into all the different types of pranayama, but the Pranayama label (on the right) will grow with posts about various forms of pranayama and what they can be used to create in our lives. Each form of pranayama, however, brings our awareness to the breath and helps us remember to bring our awareness there more quickly when we need it most.

And finally, being as it is November, we can remember to always be grateful for the breath. Each morning when we awake, and each night before we sleep, take a moment and be grateful for the ability to breathe. Without trying to control the breath, or understand it, or even really notice it, just be grateful for it. Take a moment and be grateful for this foundation of life.

It is not always easy to remember to breathe in our moments of deepest frustration, stress, and anxiety, but the more we consciously become aware of the breath, learn to control the breath, and are grateful simply because it is there, the greater our ability becomes to stop and breathe in those moments we need it most.

What are your tricks for remembering to come back to the breath?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. Ujaii breathing was the first noticeable benefit from my yoga practice... i started doing it everywhere that was stressful. Needles, painful procedures... you name it and the ocean breath comes roaring back.

    i'm not really a fan of the other pranayam, like alternate nostril breathing... but then I do feel that they are options for those who need them :)

    1. Exactly! And yes, Ujaii is one of my favorites as well. I think I need to tune into it more often. It does not seem to go over too well in the courtroom unfortunately. ;)