“and on the inhale…”

Today’s bad yogi confession: I really, really struggle with the breathing part of yoga. Maybe that should be a “bad human” confession as well, since yknow…breathing. It’s kind of important.

Ask any yogi, and they’ll agree: your breath is an intrinsic part of your yoga practice.  It’s hard to miss all the references to it throughout a class; Move with your breath. Connect with your breath. Let your breath be your guide, and let your breath calm and relax you. All that kind of stuff. I give the cues during my classes, but still, I struggle.

Even more than just listening to my breath, and moving according to it, I struggle with pranayama: the practice of controlling the breath. There are lots of techniques for it, but I’ve yet to find one that works for me. From the simple, “calming” ujjayi breath meant to be used all throughout a practice, to nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), to sheetali pranayama -a breath that supposedly helps cool you down -, I struggle.

During my teacher training in October, each morning would include an hour of pranayama and meditation after we’d done the physical part of our practice. Sometimes it would be a guided practice, sometimes we’d be left on our own to explore and work with our own breath and thoughts. Inevitably, at the end of each hour, I’d come back to reality with the guilty feeling of “oh shit, I totally just zoned out that entire time”. No matter which breathing technique we were focusing on, at some point during the practice I’d get distracted and forget all about my breath, and start daydreaming about god knows what.

I guess it’s easy enough to zone out when all you’re really supposed to be doing is breathing. It kinda just happens. But even the more involved practices we tried frustrated me. Aside from never feeling like I was getting the intended benefit of the technique, a lot of the time I kind of just felt like an idiot.

Nadi sodhana wasn’t terrible, I guess. You use your thumb and pinky to alternate between covering one nostril and then the other (kind of making a surfer’s cowabunga hand to do so). You move from side to side, inhaling through the open nostril, then switching the hand, and exhaling through the other nostril. I guess it can be calming – if you stick with it (which is my problem). I tend to zone out partway through, and come to a few minutes later breathing normally through both nostrils, my hand just absentmindedly hanging out somewhere near my nose.

But still, when I could stay present, nadi sodhana was alright. We learned one specific technique, however, that I reeeally disliked (sorry James!): kumbhaka, or breath retention. In it, you inhale your arms up, and on the exhale, fold forward, whooshing out the breath until your lungs are at their emptiest. Then, without taking an inhale, hold that exhale, and come into a squat position with your head raised, hands resting on thighs, until you absolutely need to take a breath. It’s supposed to build energy, making you feel powerful and awake and **ready for anything**, but I mostly felt dizzy.

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Since I’ve been back home, taking my normal yoga classes and teaching my own, my pranayma practice has been thrown out the window. Partly because I don’t feel comfortable teaching something I barely understand myself, but also because it’s rarely something taught in the western world of yogi – we focus mostly on the physical asana. Fair enough; as yoga becomes more and more popular, less people are interested in the non-physical, tradition aspects of the practice; they’re in it for the workout.

I’d all but forgotten about the dreaded kumbhaka exercises, but unexpectedly, they came to my rescue one day recently.

I was having an awful day at work – one of those days where it feels like a million things are coming at you at once, and you haven’t got time to blink, and you’re just totally overwhelmed. I really just needed everyone to shut up, and leave me alone, and just give me a minute!!!. But yknow, that’s not really an option. So instead, I went to the bathroom to take some deep breaths and try to clear my head. For whatever reason, the kumbhaka practice came to mind, and with a desperate let’s-try-anything attitude, I started swinging my arms up and whooshing and holding. After a few rounds, it suddenly occurred to me that if anyone was outside the bathroom door, they’d definitely be hearing my whooshes. And if anyone accidentally walked in on me, I’d look like a crazy person. I burst out laughing (now for sure making anyone near think I was nuts). Just being able to laugh at myself, and get out of that stress I’d been stuck in, felt so good. Maybe not the proper way to use the practice, but hey – I felt better!

In less dramatic situations as well though, I can see how important the breath is. It’s the first advice from anyone, yogi or not. Take a few deep breaths. When everything else feels crazy and out of control, you still have the power to control your breath. Being able to step back from whatever is going on, and connect with that steady inhale and exhale is a super power. Whatever else is going on, you’ll always have the breath to come back to, which in itself is a pretty calming thought.

I do struggle with proper breath work, but like anything, it’s a practice. Maybe one day it will come naturally for me to “move with the breath”, rising on the inhale, lowering on the exhale. For now it’s a conscious, constant effort, but I’ll keep at it. Instead of approaching pranayama with a pessimistic I-can’t-do-this mindset, I’ll try and remember my panicky bathroom incident. In the intended way or not, it did calm me down. Maybe in time some of the other techniques will work for me as well. Who knows.

Anyway. This went on longer than I meant it to, so I guess it’s time to take a breather (hehehehe…sorry).
The love and the light and the peace in me shines to the love and the light and the peace in you, Namaste ❤


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