The breath is the deep inquirer, a practitioner in its own right. Sensitive or powerful, quiet or voluminous, the breath awakens the depth body and leads us towards an unknown experience.
(Stirk 2015: 69)
Of all of the elements that make up a yoga practice, the breath is perhaps the most important. It’s the thread that ties everything together. It’s the moving force: we use it to direct our awareness, to direct our energy, to move prana (life force) through the energy channels in the body. In his book The Original Body, John Stirk talks about something that most yoga practitioners will directly experience; the way that breathing allows us to feel our way into our bodies. We imagine that we’re breathing into a joint, and we feel that joint expand. We imagine that we’re breathing all the way down into our toes, and we feel something travelling all the way down to our toes. I remember one of my yoga teachers talking about mapping the body with the breath, and in my own practice I like to use the idea of my breath moving and travelling and mapping, connecting tissue and bones and more subtle parts of me so that my body feels bright and strong and complete.
The quality of a breath can affect the quality of a physical movement, with gentle breaths helping us move softly and strong, loud breath building heat and power and giving us the strength to hold postures that we’d give up on otherwise, or to move through series of vinyasa with (relative) ease. And our breathing is closely related to the movement of our bones. With a deep breath in, the spine extends. On the out breath, the spine flexes. Deep breathing and healthy posture go together like honey and basil (try it!), and that’s one of the simplest ways to explain how breath can alter your self-perception, and the way that you’re perceived by others. When you breathe deeply and stand tall, you feel and appear more confident. But as you go deeper into breathing practices – known as pranayama, the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – the relationship between the state of the breath and the state of the mind becomes more and more interesting.
The use of the breath to balance tensions and open up space in the body and in our heads can be powerful in overcoming blocks in creative work, and getting to the unknown – to a place where we have more freedom to generate ideas. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a traditional text of Hatha yoga, Verse 2 of Chapter 2 is translated from Sanskrit to English as follows:
When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air).
That is; the nervous impulses of the wild monkey-mind can be steadied through practice, and in particular by the calming effect of controlled breathing exercises on the nervous system. Rhythm can be attained, and the mind can become less disturbed. And then with less disturbance you can reach a place in your practice when you can go deeper into your ‘self’. In yoga, and other mind-body practices, the mind is said to follow the breath. Obstructions in breathing mean obstructions in energy, and thinking becomes less clear, less creative. Georg Feuerstein writes that one of the greatest discoveries in yoga is that breath influences mind, and mind influences breath; and I think that once we’ve developed a physical understanding of this through our practice, it’s possible to start to use the breath to get deeper into our other work. To travel to previously unreached realms of the mind.
A breathing exercise
So…a simple practical offering. Here’s a breathing exercise to try when you need a bit of inspiration in your making or writing or playing. You don’t need to have an established yoga or pranayama practice to try to, but if you do try it, do so more than once. Practise makes this stuff more effective. Try it before you start work on whatever it is that you’re working on, and maybe even try it in the middle of working, too, when you feel in need. And let me know how you find it, because I’m always interested to know!
1. Be somewhere quiet, where you don’t feel self-conscious. Stretch a bit. Wiggle out any niggles in your joints. And then lie down. Get comfortable – if lying on your back with no support works for you, do that: with your legs wide, dropping out to the side, and your palms facing up to the ceiling. If that’s not comfortable, try a cushion (or two) under your knees or under your head, or both. Or you can bring your feet flat to the ground, a little wider than your hips, and drop your knees together to release the lower back a bit more.
2. Breathe, naturally. Don’t try to control it to start with. Notice the breath. Notice each inhale and exhale, and notice where it feels like the breath is going in your body. How far does it travel? Where does it stop? How fast does it move in and out?
3. And then start to notice in a little bit more detail. Notice what happens in the moment between the end of the exhalation, and the beginning of the inhalation. Can you feel that the body starts to expand in preparation for the breath? Notice what happens to the shoulder joints, to the hips, and to the knees with each inhale and exhale. Does it feel like there’s a change in the space in the joints? More room and then less room and then more room again?
4. When you’ve been breathing like this for a minute or two, take the awareness to the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Again, just notice what these parts of the body feel like with each breath in and each breath out. Perhaps you can start to feel the breath there – almost a tingling sensation, or heat or tension that changes with the movement of the breath. Then, with the next inhale, allow the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet to expand. Relax with the exhale. Again, on the inhale, imagine that the hands and feet are becoming greater and greater. Keep breathing like this, using every inhale to notice the expansion of the surface of the hands and feet. Until, maybe, after some time, it seems sort of like they’re infinite. Keep breathing for a few minutes.
5. After a few minutes, notice the tips of the fingers and the tips of the toes. Start to move them very gently. When you’re ready, draw your knees towards your chest and hug them close. And then take your time to stretch, move your body, open your eyes when you feel ready. Come back to the room and move gently back to your making.
Feuerstein, Georg. 2003. The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga: Theory and Practice. Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Swami Muktibodhananda (trans, ed.). 2011. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust. (first published by Bihar School of Yoga in 1985)
Sri Swami Satchidananda (trans, ed.). 2012. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications.
Stirk, John. 2015. The Original Body: Primal Movement for Yoga Teachers. Pencaitland: Handspring Publishing Limited.