Breath as a Bridge to Joy

“The yoga tradition tells us the mind and breath are twin laws of life, they travel together.  When the mind is calm and clear, the breath flows smoothly.  Conversely, when the breath flows smoothly, the mind calms and clears.

The condition of one determines the condition of the other….We experience the boundless joy deposited within the mind itself, which manifests when the mind is able to plumb its own depths.”

~Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, The Secret of the Yoga Sutras

When I started my yoga practice, I was regularly not breathing.

Crazy, right?  But my body’s reaction to stress was to tense EVERYTHING up, including my abdomen, and just hold my breath.

In that state, my feelings of stress would increase to feelings of panic, and everything would feel like a life or death situation.  Psychologists call this “fight or flight” syndrome, and it’s a classic reaction to stress.

As I came to the mat and began experiencing the practice of following my breath, I began to notice my breathing patterns off the mat.

It’s so simple, but so enlightening when you begin to plumb the full extent of the power we each have over our own experience.

When I was holding my breath through stressful moments, I was encouraging panic.  I felt that this response was called for, largely due to the dramatic movies and TV shows I consumed that showed characters reacting to events as though the world were ending.

This roller coaster of emotions can get almost addictive, and the pattern is easy to get sucked into.  The result is that we place the responsibility for our peace of mind in the external world.  The events that “happen to us” and the people who “do us wrong” are the reasons we can’t find satisfaction.

The first step to taking our power back is taking our breath back.  When I find myself in a stressful moment these days, I tune in to what my breath is doing.  Often, I’m breathing shallowly: only breathing to the top of the sternum and not fully inflating my lungs.

I consciously soften my abdominal muscles and take a long, deep inhale, then an equally long, slow exhale.  As I do this, I am able to gain perspective on the situation, and remind myself that everything is exactly as it should be.

This reminds me that even when the world is spinning, I can still choose my own reaction.  When I’m able to return to my breath, I am reminded that I have the choice to be happy.  In taking back responsibility for my own experience, I no longer give away the power of my peace of mind to the external world.

It’s a powerful practice, and it is just that – a practice.  Some days I get it right, some days I don’t.  It’s just one of the many reasons I return to my yoga mat again and again.

“Happiness depends to some extent upon external conditions, but chiefly upon conditions of the inner mind. If you have made up your mind to find joy within yourself, sooner or later you will find it. If you want to be sad, no one in the world can make you happy. But if you make up your mind to be happy, no one and nothing on earth can take that happiness from you.”

~Parmahansa Yogananda

Practice – Dirga Pranayama, The Three Part Breath

Come to a comfortable seat and place your hands on your low belly.  Take 1/3 of your possible inhale, and visualize the breath is going to your belly.  With your hands, feel your abdomen soften and round to accommodate your breath.

Move your hands to the sides of your ribs, and take the second third of your inhale.  Visualize sending your breath to the center of your torso, and feel your ribs expand.

Place one hand over your heart, and place the other hand on top of that, so that both of your palms are facing your chest.  Take the final 1/3 of your inhale here, and feel your hands rise as your sternum rises with your breath.

Pause for a moment at the top of your inhale, and take a long, slow exhale, imagining that you are first emptying the top 1/3 of your breath, then the center, and finally the bottom 1/3 of your breath.  Pause for a moment as you suspend the breath out, and begin again with the three-part inhale.

Practice this for 5-20 minutes