In classes I’ve attended recently I’ve noticed an alarming breathing trend: a rapid, loud, high-in-the-chest inhale followed by the only thing it could be: a dear-God-I-just-popped-a-blood-vessel exhale of relief.
Friends, I don’t think such drama is what the sages had in mind when they touted the benefits of yogic breathing.
My guess is this over-efforted breath comes from a combination of several things:
The instruction to take a “giiiiant inhalation”
Our desire to do well
Our belief that more is better
The brief jolt of adrenaline we get as the fight-or-flight response kicks in
breathe with me
Try this — inhale deeply through your nose as though you are sucking nose spray up into your sinuses. Then exhale. And repeat 10 times. (But not really if you get lightheaded.)
Imagine doing that for a whole class.
prana and pranayama
The breath is equal parts delicate and powerful. In his book The Yoga of Breath, Richard Rosen offers:
Prana literally means “to breathe forth.” It comes from the prefix pra, “to bring forth,” and the verb an, “to breath” or simply “to live.” The entry for prana in my Sanskrit-English dictionary reads, “breath of life, breath, respiration, vitality, vigor, energy, power, and spirit.”
That’s serious business, let alone the emotional effects of breath.
This is a large part of why I don’t teach much pranayama (in the way of manipulating the breath), especially with beginners.
Pranayama in my classes consists of yawning and sighing, the body’s natural response when releasing and relaxing. We also focus on un-learning and un-layering patterns of breathing rather than adding effort on top of those patterns.
I know of teachers who can instruct specific breath techniques with finesse and subtlety. I know of students who can receive such instruction and not dramatize or overdo. The combination of the two is more uncommon.
If you (or your students) feel anxious, fidgety or stressed, spend a minute or so emphasizing a long, slow, steady exhale followed by a spontaneous and relaxed inhale. This will help trigger the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or the relaxation response, of the body.
But that’s so boring.
Consider this: how often do you feel stressed?
Even though the opposite technique is true to balance lethargic or depressed energy — long, steady inhales followed by natural exhales (the difference is to do only a few of these breaths, versus a couple of minutes of the exhale emphasis — this will have an energizing effect without stressing the nervous system), many of us are simply overextended and what we really need is… sleep.
Using a dear-God-I-just-popped-a-blood-vessel (or even a more sophisticated energizing inhalation) is similar to reaching for a Coke or Snickers Bar… it’s a rush. An adrenaline cocktail. And sometimes we do it (the inhale or the Snickers) and because the body is brilliant it accommodates us and life goes on.
And other times that rush camouflages the fact that we are under-nourished and lacking vital sleep, or we’re entering a cycle or season that calls for more rest and down time.
coming soon to a mat near you
Have you seen signs of the epidemic inhale? I hope not.
But if so, exhale for that well-meaning, tender soul.
And for all of us, just wanting to do well, to do it right — take a smooth inhalation . . .
Ahhh… how do you feel now?