Many of us come to yoga because we’re looking for fitness in every area of our lives, something bigger than ourselves to unify all the urges and strivings of our daily life and our nightly loves. We’re looking for something to show us how to live, and when we find yoga we sigh a big exhale of relief because it feels like we’ve found that compass we’ve needed for so long, and we’re amazed and in awe because it turns out it wasn’t bigger than us, it wasn’t outside us; it was with us all along.
What is this seemingly mysterious rudder for our consciousness and vision that people seem to discover like a sand dollar on the beach every time they wander in for their first yoga class? What is the secret of yoga that keeps us coming back to our mats?
Many of us take years to figure out the very simple secret of yoga: yoga is learning how to breathe. Sneakily, furtively, festively, asana teaches us how to breathe. Weird, right? You’d think we’d know all about this basic, simple life giving process. After all, we breathe every day, all day, 24 x 7 x 365. But just because you actually do it, have to do it, doesn’t mean you know squat about how to do it well. Breathing and breathing well are two entirely different endeavors. Yoga is learning how to breathe well.
You walk into a yoga class and roll out your mat. Your teacher talks about expanding and inhaling, drawing to center as you exhale. Your teacher instructs you exhale in Mountain, inhale your arms overhead. Exhale fold, inhale extend. You absorb simple, subtle and deep lessons about the breath. Inhalation expands. Exhalation concentrates. Inhalation feeds. Exhalation lets go. Both are necessary. Which you favor says something about you. Which you struggle with tells you where you should focus your efforts.
To learn how to leave, learn how to breathe. You knew that, but it sounds too simple, right? But it’s not easy. Simple is not always easy. Learning how to breathe takes concentration and concentration on details that elude us in the hustle and bustle of every day life. Breath is life. In Genesis 2:7 God breathes life into the first human being: to breathe is to live. To find out the quality of your life, you need look no further than the quality of your breath.
To discover the quality of your breath, you might need to slow down a notch, and of course the yoga helps with that. Yoga asana creates the conditions you need to begin the process of relaxing around your breath, begins the process of connecting to your breath, and that is why it seems you’ve found a compass. You’ve found the rudder to your mind: your breath. The simple in and out of the life sustaining exchange of gasses that fuels your body and mind. Yoga allows you to discover your breath.
By observing how you execute this vital process, you can learn everything about how you are, in fact, living your life. By observing your breath, you can begin the process of transformation. You cannot observe without effecting what you observe, and this effect is amplified when what you are observing is one of the basic processes supporting your very ability to observe. You observe: constriction. It doesn’t take very long for that to release. You observe: shallowness. Ouch, that hurts. Suddenly the process deepens and the pain subsides. You observe: the breath is gentle, steady, slow and sustained. You feel: peace and equanimity. This is its own reward. Oh! You feel guilty at having been rewarded: the breath becomes constricted by the feeling in your ribs. The feeling leads to a memory. You sense a story starting. You make a decision to return to the breath. The breath is constricted. The rib cage relaxes. That feels good.
Do you want to learn how to live? How are you breathing? How long can you stand to be aware of your breath and your breath alone? Does it bore you? By joining breath with movement and focused awareness, yoga breaks down our barriers to self-knowledge and opens a path to the present that has always been ours... just locked behind bored minds.